My Paper Man
Z. A. Crum
He sat in the lobby, nervous, like a little kid in the Principal’s office. Time passed, an assistant walked out with a boxed lunch in her hands. Robbie gave her an awkward smile. She returned a genuine smile before disappearing through the exit. His mother stood at the counter discussing one of the forms she had been given.
He flipped through a magazine on traveling, intrigued at the many places he had never heard of. He tapped at one article, noticed a mountain retreat his family had once visited.
The door opened and the head of the facility smiled, nodding for him to come in. He glanced at his mother, who merely shooed him on. The lady led him down a narrow hallway and through one of a series of doors. Inside, the lights had been dimmed. A wall sized window looked into a sterile chamber. A bench, the kind one might lie on to get an exam, sat squarely in the center of the chamber. Sitting calmly on the bench was his paper man.
The creature rustled slightly, fidgeted for a second before returning to his calm posture. The head of the facility patted him on the shoulder before entering the chamber. Robbie assumed the window was one way glass, and his paper man saw only his reflection.
On the other side of the window she had entered and begun speaking softly to the creature. She knelt on one knee and softly cradled its thin hands in hers. She asked him several questions, watching intently as the paper man responded.
Various displays stood on a table in the corner, showing readings, graphs and an outline of the paper man.
An orderly stepped in, saw him standing there, and gave him a pitying smile. He was used to it. Had been for more than a year now.
His paper man nodded once at the nurse and then turned towards the window, as though he saw Ronnie in the dark observation room. The creature, its head made of a flat rectangular coarse paper-like material, looked out with semi human expressions. Two eyes, flat, draw on. One nose and one mouth, flat. Stylized hair at the top, like a quick doodle done with a calligraphy pen.
Once his paper man could keep his balance, he walked slowly into the room.
“Robbie, meet your paper man. We’ve been talking and he seems ready to shadow you now.” She gave him a profession smile, while his paper man stood near the door, watching him warily.
Robert nodded, bowed to the exit.
His paper man smiled, thin and without teeth, almost like a cartoon.
“Would you like to open the door?” She asked. Her question was for his paper man, obviously. It nodded, wavered slightly, still unused to walking. It paused as it neared the door. One of it’s hands came up, a flat simple shape like a cooking mitten. With a slight rustle it grasped the handle and turned, opening the door.
They met his mother in the lobby. She was sitting in a lobby chair with a book held indifferently in her lap. At first, she ignored them, lost in whatever world she had created for herself to get her through these tough times. Seconds past before her eyes flickered in Robbie’s direction. She gave him a half smile, probably the best she could manage, then saw his paper man. Her smile faded, replaced by a mild revulsion.
She hid it quickly, but Robbie saw his paper man slump slightly. Not a good sign, in his own opinion.
“Let’s go Robbie.” She glanced over at his paper man. “And bring your paper man with you.”
The Drive Home
Robbie slipped into the driver’s side back seat. He almost slammed the door on his paper man, who hovered in the doorway.
“Sorry, didn’t see you. You should go on the other side.” Robert said. His paper man stood for a moment, expressionless, then looked at Robbie’s seat. He nodded, walked around to the other side and stepped in.
Oddly enough, he put his seat belt on immediately. His paper man, as though sensing his thoughts, turned his flat face towards him and shrugged. Robbie had expected his paper man to be cumbersome and confused. Instead, he appeared to be the opposite: well composed and precise.
In the car, his mother looked back briefly, enough to see that they were strapped in.
The scenery passed by quickly, mostly commercial rental space and restaurants. A half hour later the cities began to change, becoming more familiar. He recognized a church they had passed by often. City morphed into suburbia.
His mom drove the car onto their tree lined culd-e-sac. A nice, older neighborhood, with few children of Robbie’s age for him to play with. The car rolled slowly onto the driveway. He glanced over briefly. His paper man fidgeted, nervous and, if he was reading correctly, anxious.
“We’re home.” She said, looking into her rear view mirror at Robbie. she held his gave for a second, and he realized she didn’t want to look at the creature next to him.
She gave him a nervous smile and exited their car.
His paper man looked over at him, waited for his mom’s door to close, and said: “She hates me.”
Robbie frowned, looked at his mom while she searched for her keys. He didn’t think her problem was hate, but maybe too much love.
“Give it time, she has to make the transition on her own time.”
“Okay.” The paper man sat their for a time, then reached down to grab at a bag that he didn’t have. Robbie took his own bag and handed it to him. His paper man smiled. Just a little stylized pen flick written across his paper man’s face, but enough for Robbie to know that his paper man would be alright.
They took the long walk up the sidewalk to his family’s front door, opening the screen door and letting his paper man go first. It seemed like the right thing to do, despite the circumstances. He would hope that his paper man would do the same for him when the time came.
As his paper man entered their home, Robbie watched as he took it in, knowing that it must seem different to him. Or maybe it didn’t. Who knew what a creature made of paper and wires thought.
To the right, inside the kitchen, his mother had gone to do some kind of work, and so Robbie decided to take his paper man in the opposite direction. She most likely needed a break from his new experience. Grabbing his paper man’s hand, he pulled him down the hallway, turning on the light as they walked.
“My bedroom.” His paper man said as they walked into Robbie’s room. Robbie frowned. He had expected this, but it was still weird. Two days ago his dad and mom had pulled out an old bed out of the storage shed and assembled it in Robbie’s room. Now there were two beds, one to the right of the door and one on the far wall.
“I guess so.” Robbie said, and his paper man gave him a look.
“It’s not my fault.”
“The room looks clean.”
“Yeah.” His mother had made him clean up his room the day before, knowing that they would be having a new member of the family. The paper man wouldn’t know that.
Robbie got a sudden idea. A box of puzzles and games sat in the corner of his closet, tucked away behind a stack of blankets. Rummaging through the box, he pulled out a game.
This time his paper man gave him a big smile. He took the game from Robbie and spread it out.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve played Checkers.”
“Me too.” They both laughed.
The game turned out as they both expected. For every two games Robbie won, his paper won two the next around. Eventually they conceded that they were evenly matched and packed away the game. Then they saluted, like fools, and burst into rolling laughter.
Their mother burst in with a worried look. They froze in mid place, like cartoon characters. They got the giggles, trying to control it, but their mother smiled.
“Good grief, boys.”
“I won at Checkers!” They both said in unison.
She gave them a serious look that was completely fake.
“You mean you both lost.”
Later that day they went to the park, Robert and his paper man. His mom trailed far behind, watching silently with her arms crossed. They cut across the green field, a quick jog as they fled down a small knoll. Behind them, his mother returned to their car.
They reached the playground, disheveled from a recent storm. A large branch lay across one of the smaller slides. Robbie and his paper man ran over and climbed up the stairs, ducking under an upper support beam and sliding onto the top of the small slide.
Robbie went first, giving up a wild whoop as he ducked under the low branch. He landed with a thump onto the ground and gave out a quick laugh.
Up at the top, his paper man gave out a wild laugh, modulating into an electronic popping as he laughed louder. Looking behind himself at the scene, he saw his paper man slide underneath the branch, his thin, flat arms waving wildly as he slid down.
As he slid under, a tearing sound came to Robert’s ears, and quickly after, a terrible, modulating alien scream.
He stumbled to his feet as his paper man tumbled onto the ground. The creature curled over, holding his arm close to his body.
The strange screams fell to a low, almost human whimper.
In the distance, a car door slammed shut.
“Are you okay? Let me see.”
“Leave me alone, Robbie, it hurts.”
“Come on, we can’t fix it if we don’t look at it.” Robert kneeled closer, slowly taking his arm to look at what had happened to it. He saw the paper had torn at the wrist, revealing a frayed grid of metallic filaments.
“Okay, it’s not that bad, maybe a dozen filaments that need to be sewn back together.” He smiled, and his paper man, with its flat face, smiled hopefully back.”
She came out of nowhere, yelling Robbie’s name. She shoved Robbie to the side, and looked at Robbie’s paper man with terror. “Are you okay? Oh no, look at this.”
“He’ll be okay, its just-” She gave him a furious look, glancing up at the branch, then back at him.
“What were you thinking? Don’t you realize how delicate he is?”
“I’m sorry mom.” Her anger slowly melted away, replaced by a combination of complex emotions Robert didn’t understand.
“It’s okay, Robert. Your just being yourself.” She motioned him over, cradling the two of them together. “You two are quite a pair. Now let’s go home and take care of this scratch.”
At home, the table had already been set, the medical kit from the The Clinic placed squarely in the center. Robbie’s dad sat in his study, reading a book. He shifted slightly when they passed the doorway, but did not acknowledge their presence.
The medical kit opened like a clam shell, revealing several packages labeled by their intended uses. His mom pulled out one and opened it. Inside, like a series of loose leaf papers, lay different types of patches. She rifled through them for a minute before choosing a smaller one.
“Go ahead and put your arm on the table.” Robbie’s paper man looked at her in fear, then nodded before gently placing his arm near the kit.
She found a pair of tweezers and a dozen or so miniature sleeves, which she quickly used to splice the metallic filaments together. Halfway through she stopped suddenly, her face blank.
“Mom?” Robert asked, nervously. He saw her face begin to twitch, and her eyes watered. She let out a sob, which she tried to hold back before running out of the kitchen.
Down the hall his parents bedroom slammed shut. Robert and his paper man stood silently for a few minutes, looking down at the table. The arm lay half finished.
“It’s hard for her.”
“I know.” Robbie said. He took the tweezers and finished the splicing of the filaments. He read the directions for the patch before opening it. He took the piece of fabric and, after determining the down side, placed it over the torn area.
Robbie shrugged, Couldn’t leave you hanging.”
They watched a show for the next hour, talking once or twice on the merits of a show dedicated to telling the story of children alone in the bowels of a spinning asteroid, before slipping away to their bedroom.
One of the items inside his paper backpack was a set of silk pajamas. Robbie’s paper man picked them up, turning them sideways to show how flat they were, before putting them on.
His paper man turned the light off after they finished changing.
As they lay in the darkness, Robbie’s mind shifted to how strange and unique his situation was. In the dark he saw, or imagined, two faint blue rings looking at him in the dark. He wondered if the creature could see in the dark.
He was afraid, suddenly and totally, of this thing sleeping across from him. He grabbed the blanket at his wait and curled it around his head, leaving only a small air hole.
Time passed, the terror faded, and eventually the door opened in a blaze of light.
The shadow of his mom, her hair laying across to one side as she pulled it when it was close to bedtime, stood in the light of the doorway. She stood silently for a few moments.
Robert kept his eyes half closed, peaking out between the folds in his blankets, nervous and excited, like he was playing hide and seek.
“Robbie?” She called out his name, and he felt his stomach drop the second time she said his name. She called it out, but she didn’t say it to him. Robert could still she his mom’s shadow, her head turned towards the bed where his paper man lay, eyes glowing softly in the dark.
The next morning, Robert woke up late. He glanced around groggily before noticing the spare bed. The sheets lay tossed onto the ground and the door stood ajar.
After his morning routine in the bathroom was finished, Robbie stepped into the hallway. He could hear voices coming from the kitchen, laughing.
He rubbed the grime from his eyes and peeked around the corner.
Their dining table had four chairs, and each member of their family had a specific spot, mostly because their dad often caught the news from the living room.
Robbie sat nearest the kitchen, since his parents often asked him to grab an item they had forgotten.
He stood there, halfway between his room and the kitchen, feeling betrayed. His councillor at The Clinic had told him, from the beginning, that this would happen, but it still hurt.
In Robbie’s chair sat his paper man.
To make matters worse, his parents began laughing at some comment his paper man said.
Robbie usually sat nearest to the kitchen, since his parents often asked him to get an item they’d forgotten. There sat his paper man, laughing along with his parents, and didn’t he, as Robbie neared the end of the hallway, sneak a look at Robbie?
Of course he did, since wasn’t it all part of the plan anyways?
It took a few minutes for Robbie to overcome his anger, but he did. Sullenly, and with a bit of envy thrown in, he trudged over to the table without making eye contact with his parents or the thing in his seat.
“Robert. How nice of you to join us,” His dad spoke, crossing his arms on the table, an act his dad had often scolded Robbie about. “We were talking about taking a trip up to the river.”
“Really?” Robbie asked, barely hiding the sarcasm in his voice.
“Yeah. In fact, it was your paper man’s idea.” His dad smiled, glancing over with unconcealed admiration.
“Sure, whatever.” He didn’t really mind, since it was Saturday. A day in which his parents would let him play games for a moment before sending him off to do chores. It was, in Robbie’s mind, one of those unwinnable scenarios.
Robbie knew that the real issue was that the river was their special place. And the fact that his paper man not only knew about the river, but had chosen it, frustrated Robbie.
The rest of breakfast turned out to be uneventful. A spattering of banal conversation while his parents brought seconds to the table and ate. His paper man, of course, did not eat. A bowl had been placed before him, and he would occasionally pick up a spoon as a prop to illustrate a point he wanted to make, but he was acting.
After cleaning up the table, his parents retreated to the garage to pack a few items, while his paper man walked into Robbie’s bedroom.
With the car loaded, his dad drove them out of the suburbs and out into the countryside. Robbie had, with unconventional foresight, piled a few of their backpacks into the center, allowing him some privacy from his paper man. They drove through sparse forest that gradually thickened. Light flickered through the canopy in hazy gold beams. They stopped once, at a manned gate, before entering the park.
The drive down to the river ended sooner than they expected, shortly after the gate, when they came across the last bridge before the section of river they often visited.
A portion of road directly behind the bridge had partially washed out, leaving a ragged crevasse that no car could safely pass. A few cones stood before the bridge, and a line of caution tape lay strung from one tree to another.
For a moment his father sat in the driver seat, tapping away slowly at the steering wheel. He looked back from the damaged road, down the few portions of river visible, then to the rear view mirror.
Robbie shrugged. He had no idea what they should do. His paper man looked behind them, then at his dad.
“We should head back to the gate, head up to the upper fork.” Robbie looked at his paper man, but the creature sat featureless. It had been a particular comment, almost robotic in nature. Which, for Robbie’s paper man, was peculiar.
“Okay, let’s give it a shot.” His dad said, reversing in a tight circle, before driving back down the road towards the gate.
Just before the gate they turned down a rugged, worn road. Robbie didn’t remember having ever rode down this way before.
“We used to come this way when you were just a baby, Robbie.” His mother said, giving the paper man a smile. It flashed a dimensionless smile in return.
It took them a good twenty minutes to reach the river bed, much of the drive taking place on rough dirt. His dad mumbled once that he didn’t remember it being so difficult.
“That’s because you thought it was an adventure.” His mother said wryly. His mother was fond of these expressions, and he wondered if she missed that old version of his father, or was she merely rubbing it in because she still held some long smoldering resentment.
They crested a hill, and took in the view of the river below. As his father drove down and parked near its bank, he saw a knowing look pass between his parents. It was that kind of look that always made you feel like an outsider. The sudden realization that your parents had some kind of connection that went deeper and farther than you ever could know.
They unloaded the car, his dad rummaging for the utensils, which had, for some crazy reason, been packaged with the emergency first aid kit. It was what made Robbie’s family who they were. These sudden bursts of adventure that went counter to all reason, and the idea that his paper man, no matter his background knowledge, latched onto this, angered Robbie.
“What are you doing?” He whispered to his paper man as his parents went about moving gear to their camp site.
“Whatever do you mean…Robbie?” The jab at his name made it worse, and he sensed that his relationship with his paper man had moved into a new, alien phase. His stomach felt hollow, like he hadn’t eaten all day.
“This trip. These suggestions. They’re my parents.”
“Then start acting like their son,” His paper man looked him in the eyes, “while you still can.”
Robbie’s mouth dropped. His paper man grabbed a bag out of the car and walked away, while Robbie felt the embarrassing pressure of tears beginning to form. He held it back, as much as can, while he watched the creature mingle with his parents.
Standing next to the car, with his arms at his side, he realized what an outsider he was becoming. He had let this happen, in the beginning, when everything had seemed-as his father would say-abstract.
“Abstract.” The words fell out of his mouth, dry and humorless, and he would have stood there for another ten minutes if his dad hadn’t come over and given him a friendly hug and asked him to help out.
Robbie nodded, looked out towards the river, where he had had so many adventures, many of them with his cousins, and realized that, most likely, this was the last time he would ever come here. It was too much, he walked away from his family and cried his heart out.
There came a time when his mother stopped trying to pretend that he had been replaced. It was his birthday. And on Robbie’s birthday, at least for the last few years, it had been his mother’s habit to take him to the stores so that he might pick out one gift that he really wanted.
One of the amazing aspects of this was that it didn’t matter what day it was. If his birthday landed on a school day, she would pick him up early.
He reveled in the excitement of it all. Sitting in the classroom, watching the clock tick away, knowing that at any moment, his teacher would get a call that Robbie was to be excused from class.
The morning of his birthday, he watched the clock absently, knowing that most likely the call would come around lunch time. So he gave his teacher, Mrs Harper, half an ear, while his mind dwelt on what toy he would choose. This school did not allow students to bring their paper men to school.
Fifteen minutes before the lunch bell and his palms began to sweat. He should not feel nervous, but he did. He tried not to think that dark thought that had been poking away at the corner of his conscious, but it did anyways: his paper man.
He shook it off, went to lunch, were his friends babbled on consistently before suddenly stopping in mid-conversation.
“Rob?” Joe, the boy who sat to his right asked.
“What’s up with you? You’ve got that spaceman look. Why don’t you come back down to earth son.” Joe said this in his grizzled old southern voice.
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Who said I was, but you know we’ve got like two weeks of school left right? Are you going to sit there or are we going to have to kick the moody out of you?”
“Naw, just lay off, Joey. Man, you need a girlfriend.” Everyone but Joe laughed, even Robbie.
“Alright, you just lost your number one fan, brother.” Joe made like he was going to leave, but Robbie grabbed him and pulled him comically down onto the bench.
“Sit down. Tell me all about your sister’s slumber party.”
“I thought you’d never ask, Robbie.” Joe said, rolling his eyes in mock disgust.
They bantered on, and for a time Robbie forgot all about his mother, about his birthday. Even when the bell rang, and they headed in, his thoughts were not on his mother taking him out, but on how lucky Joe was to be able to have so many girls at one time at his house.
An hour after they had returned to class one of his classmates two rows down looked over and said, “Hey Robbie. Happy birthday.”
He gave her a false smile, realizing that his mother, for the first time in years, had forgotten his birthday.
The rest of the school day went by slowly, and occasionally someone would ask him if he was sick. He shook his head, bending over to hide in his schoolwork.
At the end of school, his mother picked him up, and for that he was grateful. The scenario had played in his mind for the last hour: Robbie sitting outside at the curb for hours, until the sun had gone down. His father, the only sensible one in his family, finally pulling up with that look he gets when he wants to apologize for something Robbie’s mother had done.
As he closed the door and buckled his seat belt, he looked up at his mother. She didn’t even look at him. He waited, watching her expression in the rear view mirror.
To his left sat his paper man, with a shopping bag laying on the floor between his legs, who gazed at Robbie without speaking.
Robbie, in the beginning, before all this, before the paper man, who, he supposed had never been his at all, had thought it would end in the same room it began in: the chamber where the paper man had been filled with Robbie’s memories.
In the end though, his dad drove him to another, similar block building. His mom, and the paper man, stayed home. It had been an awkward farewell. His mother giving him a stiff, quick hug as his paper man stood in the shadow of the corner. She said goodbye, and that she loved him, and then went out onto the back porch to watch the sun travel down the sky.
In the end, he guessed he couldn’t blame her, but in the car with his dad, he cried anyways. His dad, always strong, patted him on the knee, but behind his dad’s sunglasses, Robbie thought he saw his dad cry too.
The building, a massive grey structure with trim painted a muted pastel blue, loomed above them as they pulled into the underground parking structure.
The dark cavernous space, lit occasionally by pools of amber lights, echoed as they exited the car. Their steps echoed too as they made the long walk to the elevator. Robbie smiled sadly at the thought. His dad could have parked next to the elevator, but he had wanted a few minutes more.
“Remember when I played soccer last year?”
“Yeah, Robbie, I remember.”
“Remember what you told me when we lost the first game?”
“Sorry, son, I don’t remember.”
“That’s okay.” They walked in silence the rest of the way. The elevator was the worse moment of the whole ordeal, a long climb up to The Clinic. He vaguely remembered being here a few years ago, back when the tests had been “routine” and the outcome “encouraging”. Now though, both his dad and himself had become resigned to their fates.
The elevator slowed with a soft ding, and a second later the doors slid softly open. The opening revealed an immense lobby, polished wood floors and a sparkling dusky sky ceiling that appeared higher than it really was.
A man, resplendent in an immaculate tuxedo, stepped to their side.
“Mr. Chandler?” At first he thought the man was speaking to his father, but the man’s eyes looked at Robert.
“It is good to meet you.” He offered his hand, massive and white gloved, for Robbie to shake. Robbie shook his hand, feeling peculiar and out of place. “This way, sir.”
They walked across the large lobby, distant music playing from above. The air smelled of lavender, a smell which reminded Robbie of being barely born, but he couldn’t remember why.
Memories from Robbie’s childhood entered his mind: playing at a rocket ship playground with his mom. He remembered her how she had been at the time: young, golden hair and cute dresses. That was before she left him to work. He thought of his father: distant, working so much he would arrive home near Robbie’s bedtime, but would take the time to tell him a bedtime story. And not one of the easy picture books, like mom often read because she was tired, but an actual book with chapters.
Robbie smiled fondly at those memories, even as he walked the last mile. It was a polished mile, but still the last.
They arrived at a pair of giant double doors. Now he understood, the handles were higher than normal, at a height that their escort would find a comfortable reach, but someone of average height-like his dad, would have difficulty opening.
“Mr Chandler,” the escort said, this time clearly meaning the eldest of the two, “I’m afraid your journey must end here. Your son must walk the end alone.”
His father nodded, jerking motions as he held his emotions in check. He knelt in front of Robbie and gave him a long hug. He pulled away slowly, his eyes red.
“Son.” He looked out at his dad, their eyes locked together in sadness. Where his mother’s green eyes had glazed over and become distant, his father’s blue eyes became intense and focused. “I will always be with you.”
“It’s okay dad. Just like what you told me in soccer: this is only the first game.”
He watched as understanding came over his dad. His dad nodding as he remembered his son’s first game, and then as he realized his son’s meaning.
“There are more games than this.”
The door opened, and Robert Chandler turned away from his father and entered into the darkness.
She waited several hours on the porch as the sun crawled down the sky before the message came from her husband: “It’s done.”
She sighed in relief, looked down at her son, who, though made of paper and metal, shined with the spark of life.
The paper man, who was, he guessed, really a paper boy, looked up at his mom. She smiled, gently took his uninjured hand, and looked out towards the setting sun. “Let’s go home, Robbie.”
The paper boy, or Robbie as he had always called himself from the beginning, felt a wave of relief. His mom was finally his again.