by Nelson Vicens
Tom Atwood had yet to believe in angels, but in the depths of his slumber he dreamt he was flying. It was an exhilarating release for him, an unlikely escape from the uncertainty of his future. Tom had just graduated from Southside High, and the hours before this most fortunate dream he spent searching for colleges and convincing his parents, and himself, of his excitement. Since his supposed celebratory graduation ceremony, Tom shuddered at every “Congratulations!” he received, and fought daily the urge to smother away all the smiles born from a future he would never be able to realize. So that after such turmoil he should dream of freedom was unlikely of his character, for on most usual days his heart would seize him and take grasp of his chest and pull him forward, deeper into whatever misfortunes his mind haphazardly conjured. But tonight, just as he was admiring the pitiful cages of unfulfilled lives rolling on by below, the tremors of his unavoidable angst revived inside him and he began to fall from the sky. A pressure from perhaps the wind, which was now his only barrier between hard, true earth, swelled up against his chest and neck so quickly that he lunged out of his incoming doom and found himself sitting, sweating, panting in the true terror that would forever follow him for the rest of his life.
Something had been choking Tom Atwood, he was certain of it now. All residual comforts of his dream began to fade as he examined every inch of the room, desperate not to find anything, but there it was. The magnitude of such incomparable horror broke his soul and stole his breath. His body flared up and froze, every expanding beat of his heart threatened to blow him up as he sat there, unblinking, waiting for the doll at the foot of his bed to move.
It was Maximilian, his childhood best friend, though all memories of their countless explorations of the forest and one-sided conversations escaped him now, as he pondered the impossibility of its presence. Had it all just been a dream? But it was undeniable, before him was the same worn down plastic skin that reflected the sole light in the room, and the same old grin that stretched the mold and opened the mouth that let him speak.
Four feet across the bed, the apparent distance of an infinite misunderstanding, Maximilian lay just as afraid, just as terrified as his flesh and bone brother, for he only meant to comfort Tom, who seemed cold and shaking in his sleep, by raising the blanket to his neck and covering his exposed skin with protection. But the oblivious and further shaking Tom Atwood would not look away, pinning down Maximilian in his demonic perspective. The doll dared not speak, but when Tom opened his mouth and awakened inside Maximilian the first born-remnants of recognition, his motors spun and cogs clicked into a warm greeting. “Hello Tom!” Never before had the speakers in Maximilian’s mouth emitted Tom’s name, and never before had Tom screamed in terror as he did, a measurement not in decibels but in the instinctual death cry of a helpless animal. From then on their lives were forever irrevocably fused.
Tom Atwood’s parents were the first to meet his new guest, having been woken up by their innate parental awareness of trouble in their only son’s security. His mother greeted this newly awakened existence in Maximilian with a near coronary conniption, though his close friends received him with interest and wonder. They held conversations with him, probed him and filled his beliefs, for Maximilian had an insatiable hunger for the world. He would flex his plastic and maneuver his being into theatrical jumps and flips, astonishing even the skeptic amongst his observers. He was unlike anything they, or any man on earth, had ever seen: a limber and spontaneous, artificial stroke of nature. Maximilian asked Tom new questions everyday, and left him dumbfounded when out of his voice box arose:
“Why am I alive, Tom?”
There was no answer. Though his community could not cease the applause of adoration for the miracle of his subsistence, Maximilian only instilled the greatest fear and suspicion Tom had ever felt in his life. When in front of a packed crowd in the living room, and Maximilian would turn from the feverish excitement and smile, Tom Atwood was convinced no one was sensitive enough to register the subtleties of his perverse and unyielding intentions. Tom knew that beneath the plastic and divinely motivated motors lurked an aspiration beyond the capacity of itself: a dangerous desire to exist. Maximilian’s appetite for energy scared him, and even if the robot were of the humankind he would have evoked feelings of inferiority in the ever-obsessed Tom Atwood. Some nights, Maximilian would emerge from a closet, within which he was patiently waiting for the morning sun, to seek solace in the proximity of his best friend, but when Tom would release from his nightmare’s grip, and align sights with the obstinate attention of his boyhood toy, Tom could only shudder in the darkness. What malevolent plans could be boiling in the otherworldly spark of his imagination? Who, but he, could see past his charming façade?
He never left him to his studies, always excited about the most mundane of observations, like the shape and texture of pencil shavings and the predestined simplicity of shadows moving across the carpeted floor. He often attempted to communicate with colorful computer screens and fellow stuffed-bears blossoming women would bring to him. The majority of friends gained during Tom Atwood’s freshman year would never have paid him notice were it not for the legendary incidence of Maximilian on campus.
The inexhaustible siege on his apartment was a shock to Tom, who until then liked to remain in seclusion and intimacy with his own unhindered desires, and yet midway through the semester videos had surfaced online of the life blown into a Chuckling Charlie doll, series one. Millions of humans across the country spread and shared the videos along the electrical tracks of the internet and within weeks, Tom Atwood’s small cell of a mailbox was filled with requests for interviews and permission to witness the unholy sight of sentience in circuitry. He was horrified. Everyday Maximilian’s intelligent, dead eyes penetrated any further into his sacred bubble of rule, which was everyday, Tom had to subdue his urge to erase this mistake from the face of the planet.
But that day was yet to come, and by December, Maximilian was a veritable worldwide celebrity. For Tom could not withstand the persistent pleas from Maximilian for exposure, for travel, for an overall frenetic lifestyle, and eventually gave in to the world who so dreadfully demanded the brilliance of his boyhood toy. He appeared in television interviews and commercials, he gave speeches and inspired populations, he spoke through a window of wisdom whose exclusivity escaped Maximilian. All over the world Chuckling Charlie dolls sold off store shelves like an epidemic, every poor soul desperate for their own pestering friend, but never did any come to life. Maximilian was a gifted glitch. He provoked the wildest revolution since Darwin’s discovery of evolution. He was the subject of everyone’s speculation, the question and answer to every single human who watched his exuberance on screen. He was, above all else, the thickest thorn in the heart of Tom Atwood since the recognition of his paltry role in a world that cared less for him than him for it, and this happened the same day he realized the history of humanity did not, in fact, revolve around him. But it did revolve around Maximilian, and somehow, to the surprise and disgust of Tom Atwood, the doll was still unsatisfied.
The night after his first interview, when every television screen shined his dull panning eyes and pink-painted plastic lips to the fixated eyes of humanity, Tom heard Maximilian crying in the closet. They were not the aquatic kind of tears, but rather an electric hum that felt hoarse and broken, like the static of a television screen wiped by a curious child’s hand. Regardless of the sound through that closet, however, the primitive expression of pain was understood by Tom, and he opened the door. There lay Maximilian, on his back and with his plastic face contorted in unprogrammed atrocity. He looked up at Tom with eyes that saw through him and said: “What is the point of living if the whole world can’t understand you?” Tom never knew the answer.
The next day Maximilian was his same old self, eager for understanding and with a fixed smile pushed to the extent of its motors. The media had taken to calling him Max the Miracle Doll, despite his and Tom’s ritualized agreement at seven years old to never respond to anything but the honorable and prestigious name of Maximilian. Max didn’t even have any of the qualities Tom procured for him in his fantasies. Instead of a reserved and loyal companion, Max turned out to be an unpredictable flurry of activity. He was the servant of his own urges rather than the compassionate and patient listener he had been in his youth. Any residual affinity Tom Atwood felt for his toy was lost by the month of February, as were any and all of his amorphous goals as student, intellectual and of world renowned fame. Tom was along for the ride, appeasing Max’s every impulse, answering to his every existential dilemma, meanwhile steadily stoking the unimpeachable flames of hate. Max held the world at his plastic, painted fingertips, and had accumulated in four months more wealth than the entirety of Tom’s lineage, and yet he still felt something missing: something Tom feared only he could provide. He could tell it in the way the doll would cling to him too long after every hug, in the way he wouldn’t stop staring at him with longing eyes at night, in his body language that seemed to gravitate toward Tom’s position no matter where he stood. Every moment Max was alone with Tom was a failed opportunity to obliterate its anomaly of existence, for Tom never knew when he would strike, when his impossible goals would finally fail him and he’d make the inevitable move to take from Tom what he always wanted: life.
One night, after an increasingly rare outing with his friends, Tom returned to his apartment under the forgiving spell of too many drinks. He briefly fumbled at the lock and quickly stumbled in to his freshly cleaned living room to discover Max in his own shadow, as motionless as his first night of awakening. Tom Atwood ignored him and shut the door, all too willing to drop in to bed and further escape his life’s vortex, but Max was in a peculiar isolation. He followed him in to his bedroom and watched as Tom clumsily tore off his shirt and pants and sought comfort under the blankets.
“I missed you.”
“Get back in the closet,” mumbled Tom, eager to end the altercation, but Max made his way to the foot of the bed, pressing his body against the sheets.
“Well, that’s exactly it. I’ve been thinking-”
“You can’t think,” interrupted Tom. His words cut deep into Max but he ignored it, attributing this sudden slice to the influence of alcohol.
“I’ve been thinking, how long do I have to spend my nights in the closet?” Max waited for a moment but no response came from the limp lump under the comforter. “I’d really like to have my own bed in your room, so we can talk and discuss life before you sleep.”
The notion was preposterous to Tom, who hardly believed the insanity had been suggested until he could hear the plastic thuds of Max’s careful steps toward his head. He opened his eyes and before him was the sideways smile of his undercover enemy.
“I don’t mean now, or anytime soon.” The apparition would not fade. “I can wait, I can be patient. When you have kids, I’ll be their best friend like I was with you, ‘cause that’s the beauty of it: I don’t think I can die.”
It was in this exact moment, before the lips of this abhorred abomination could even reach their full eclipse that Tom knew, at last, that Max had made his move. The whole world shrunk down to a penny of an aperture, and all Tom Atwood could see were the future years captured in the wake of Max’s unquenchable discomfort. Tom’s blurred senses flipped razor sharp by the accumulation of all his deferred desire to destroy. He was an animal primed to react to its impending extinction. It was now or never: Maximilian must die, or Tom Atwood would face forever with this parasitic piece of plastic stabbing at his fate.
Tom Atwood lunged out of bed and wrapped his steel hands around Maximilian’s neck in a vice grip of survival. He ripped away at his clothes, at the hinges that held together his hellish limbs and without a chance of repercussion he tore off the head until it popped and hung loosely by veiny wires. His metallic jaw snapped still and clipped Tom’s palm beneath the skin but there was nothing to extinguish the executioner’s engine now that the trap was sprung. In retrospect, the annihilation of one of the world’s most astonishing miracles was too sudden and titanic to warrant the mercy deserved, but there is nothing to halt the death scramble of a frightened animal. Within a matter of seconds, Maximilian’s limbs and designer attire and stretchable skin lay scattered about the apartment floor. A soul evaporated into nothingness, or so Tom believed for a brief moment as he lay panting over his righteous rubble, for after his vision returned to him, he witnessed the most ghastly sight ever to rock his cornea.
Out of the chest that contained the deserted batteries of Maximilian arose a faint electrical spark that shot out the neck’s stump, along the carpet and into the nearest outlet. Blood drained from Tom’s face. The hum subsided, the lights ceased to flicker, and the air returned stained with sweat and exasperation. It was then Tom realized the ramifications of his futile deed. Though he had hoped to finally escape the haunting of his nightmarish peculiarity, he had merely misplaced the source of his woes into some unknown corner of his existence.
Months after, when the first remnants of his paranoia began to fade, he was walking down the street to his first class in the morning when he witnessed a bright white electrical buzz hum along the power lines above him. For the rest of his life he lived with the presence of his persistent Maximilian lurking somewhere behind him like a black fog of ambiguity. The fear always composed a portion of his thoughts, and to this day Tom Atwood, now a family man with added burdens, never let go of the defense he built while under the servitude of his boyhood toy.
Just last night, however, as Tom bid his son farewell into the innocent dreams he had long forgotten the flavor of, he walked towards the wooden door and past the sly collection of motionless dolls slumped on a shelf. For a moment, for a brief shocking panic of perspective, Tom thought he could hear one of the dolls breathing.