“I hate him,” Jacob mumbled to his friend Miguel. They stood in the corner of the school playground, huddled together in the cold breeze, waiting for the bell to signal the end of recess.
“Your own brother?” Miguel asked incredulously. He had five siblings of his own, all younger than he was, and sometimes he felt irritated, frustrated, but he never hated them. Most of the time he just felt nothing and he ignored them — but of course, he was 11, and the oldest of his brothers was 8. They never bothered him, each having four other siblings to torture.
Jacob’s brother, John, was only one year older. So, who knows, Miguel thought to himself, maybe that wasn’t enough space.
“Well, you know that John really isn’t my brother.”
“Yeah, he’s adopted. My parents thought they couldn’t have kids, and so they picked him, but then I was an accident.”
“Wow. Well, my parents had five accidents, I think,” Miguel laughed. Jacob began to kick the fence beside him, his fists curled up tightly in his pockets. The bell rang, and Miguel stood watching Jacob continue to kick, and then decided to go in, leaving his friend standing there in the cold.
The teacher stood in front of the classroom, looking over her glasses, counting heads. She noticed that Jacob Reinhold was not in his seat. With a huff, she marked him tardy. Five tardies so far, she thought, how many more before the next teacher conference?
“John, where is your brother?” John Reinhold looked up, startled. No matter how many times his brother got into trouble, he was always surprised.
“I don’t know, Mrs. Jenson. Perhaps he is in the bathroom?”
The door opened suddenly, hitting the wall with a loud bang. “Well, Jacob, it is good of you to join us. I was just about to have your brother go find you. Now sit down and finish your math.” Jacob walked in, his shoulders hunched forward. The teacher turned her back to the class and began writing on the board. Jacob sat down beside John, in his empty seat, and then swiftly reached out and kicked him.
“Now class, the assignment is to write a one page essay on ‘What I want to be when I grow up.’ Please think very carefully about this. It is due tomorrow.” The bell rang, signaling the end of class.
One by one, the teacher and the students signed off, until finally the classroom went dark, and Jacob heard his mother walk into their bedroom. Both John and Jacob switched off their virtual terminals, and turned around.
“Hey guys. How was school today?” Their mom reached over and hugged each of them individually. It was the first time that day either of them had felt the warmth of an actual person. Even though Jacob and John sat next to each other every school day, they noticed only their VTs. Their mom sat next door at her own office, with her own VT and never interrupted them. When Jacob was smaller, he used to walk away from his VT and crawl into his mother’s lap to snuggle. While his mother worked, her attention was at her office, but her body stayed with her son. John had obediently sat in their room, working at his VT, never bothering their mother. Eventually, his mother insisted that Jacob was too old for those snuggle breaks, and needed to be like his brother and develop some discipline.
“OK, Mom. We got a jumpin assignment,” Jacob stood up, his face animated for the first time that day in an emotion other than anger. He stood on his tippy toes, bouncing rhythmically. His mother tried to hide a smile, but finally laughed, “OK, Jacob, what was so jumpin about it?”
“We get to say what we want to be when we grow up. It’s due tomorrow but I already figured out what I want to be. Do you want to hear, do ya, huh, huh?” His bounces increased in frequency. John sat still, looking up at his younger brother, and said, “Of course we do.”
Jacob shot a dirty look at him, “I decided I want to be a pirate.”
“Like a computer pirate?” John asked.
“Naw. Software is for creeps like you.”
“Jacob Robert Reinhold, we are nice in this home,” his mom pointed a finger at him. John was unfazed, and asked, “Well, then a VT pirate?”
Jacob sighed, “V.T. is for — “ then noticed his mother eyeing him, “VT piracy isn’t what I mean. I mean a pirate. You know, someone who is on the ocean, who travels the sea, who is jumpin, for real!”
His mother turned to John and asked, “Have you decided what you want to be?”
“Well, I am a little less adventurous than Jacob.”
“That’s fine, dear, we all can’t be as imaginative as Jacob.”
“I think I will be a VT programmer.”
Jacob began to say, “That’s — “
His mother quickly put her hand over his mouth, “That’s very respectful, John. Jacob and I are very proud of you.”
Jacob chomped down and bit his mother’s hand, and she pulled away in surprise. He mumbled, aware that he was going to be punished now, “I was just going to say that’s jumpin.”
Jacob heard a knock on his door, and saw his brother John peek his head in.
“What do you want, buzzer-head?”
“I brought you dinner.”
“Without mom and dad knowing?” Jacob asked hopefully.
“No, they talked it over and decided your punishment was over.”
“Oh,” Jacob said, disappointed.
“Can I come in?”
“Fine. Do whatever you want. I don’t care.”
John walked over and sat on his bed, across from his younger brother. “So what does a pirate do?” he asked, handing his brother a bowl of soup and a napkin.
Jacob replied, his mouth full, dribbling some tomato juice on his shirt, “They blow up things. They are sort of like terrorists, but their purpose is to get money, not scare people. They travel the open sea and hijack ships. Except, I want to be a different kind of pirate — like in this book I just read, where the pirate steals from ships that have stolen stuff from people. Like Robin Hood, except this guy is really cool, and he gives the stuff back to the rightful owners, not to the poor.”
John stared at his younger brother, surprised, “You mean, they hurt people? That’s bad.”
Jacob laughed, “I guess it is, but who cares? These pirates slam these weasels. The pirates get the real bad guys. Anyway, it sure beats VT.”
“You would be an outlaw, and the government would track you down.” John frantically rushed on. “Mom and Dad would be so disappointed. You could even be hurt.”
Jacob continued sipping his soup, pulling out bits of carrots and stuffing them into the napkin, “So. I’m not scared. And Mom and Dad are already disappointed. What do I have to lose?”
“Mom and Dad love you. How can you say that?”
Jacob slurped loudly, “I know that, stup-brain. I didn’t say they hated me, just I am not what they really want. They want you. They picked you. I am just a left over, like these mushed up carrots. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care. I am going to travel the world, have real adventures, really have a jumpin time.”
John looked at his brother dubiously, “But they would miss you so much. Don’t you care about anyone except yourself?”
“Aw, come off it. What do you think I should do? Buy a co-op next to them and live the rest of my life doing VT? I guess we wouldn’t even have to ever see them, really. Just plug us in, and zap, we’re having a cozy little family dinner, me, them and super dork head, twiddling our thumbs,” Jacob paused, continuing to pick out carrots from his soup, “We didn’t choose each other. I never picked them. Why should I care about anyone except myself?”
There was a knock on the door. It was their father, who walked in, swiftly gliding over to sit next to John. “It’s time for bed, sons.” Jacob and John sat still, suddenly silent. Jacob then put his soup down and went over to sit beside his dad, resting his head on his father’s shoulder, “Dad, tell me a bedtime story.”
“Do you have anything in mind?”
“How about you tell me again about how I was born.”
His father smiled at his son, and put his arm around his shoulder, "Well, your mother and I were shopping on the VT for a bassinet for you, looking at the different options, when your mom's water broke. I didn't notice at first, I just keep walking around the department store, and turned around and noticed that your mother's body lay on the ground. For a moment I forgot that we were using the VT. That it wasn't your mother really laying on the floor, that she had left her terminal without signing off, so her VT body was no longer being used. So after running over and beginning to shake her I felt your mother's arm on my back and I realized what was happening. She started yelling in my ear, totally hysterical, 'Jonathan get your butt up.'"
Jacob giggled at his dad saying the word "butt." John, looking confused, poked his father in the arm, "But mom said you were the one who was hysterical."
Their dad turned to look at his older son, and said, an amused expression on his face, "Hey, who's telling the story?"
Jacob prodded, "So then you went to the hospital."
"Well, we got onto the tran, which we had reserved just for this moment, and the driver was very nice. He told us he had two children of his own and we had nothing to worry about, he would get us there as quick as possible. It was before home births were supported, so we were totally dependent on getting to the hospital. Your mom was squeezed into one of those tiny seats, her huge stomach bulging into the aisle. Actually, now that I think about it, it wasn't that pretty of a sight."
Jacob and his father began laughing, and John looked impatient and poked his father again, "So then what happened, Dad?"
"OK, so we got into the hospital and we got into the delivery room, and the doctor came over and looked at your mom and said, 'Aw, the big momma is here,' trying to make small talk, and your mom just suddenly punched the doctor."
"What? She punched the doctor? You never told us that before." John asked, his face scrunched up.
"She punched him? Wow, so cool!" Jacob grinned.
Their dad's face turned serious, trying to hide a smile, "Well, boys, your mom was under an incredible amount of stress. So that doctor was knocked out cold, and they got another doctor, a woman this time, who was a little more serious about the whole process, and then Jacob the baby, eventually, after hours of listening to your mom scream, popped out."
"What did I look like?"
"Well, you were really ugly. Sort of like now," his father began tickling Jacob, both of them laughing again.
"He was ugly? Really?" John asked, confused.
"Aw, c'mon, I was joking. He was totally perfect, totally baby love at first sight," suddenly he became serious and looked at his older son, "Of course, John, when you were given to us, we were totally amazed, at this tiny little baby gift," Jacob noticed that there was tears in his dad's eyes, "Anyway, now you got me all worked up. I guess I am a sentimental old fart. Time for bed. No more story time this night, OK?"
"Aw dad, please? Do we have to?" Jacob whined.
His dad ignored him, and said to John, "By the way, Mom told me about your wanting to be a VT programmer. That takes a lot of hard work, dedication and intelligence. We have no doubt that you would be a fine programmer. We're very proud of you," he faced Jacob, looking disapprovingly at the orange stains on his son's shirt, and said, "Jacob, finish your dinner." Their dad gruffly hugged both of them and then left, closing the door behind him.
Jacob suddenly felt upset, seemingly for no reason. He took his left-over carrots wrapped in the napkin, and threw them as hard as he could at the door, imagining it was his father.
Miguel and Jacob sat together on the steps alongside the playground, watching the younger kids hit tetherballs, a line of them in each court patiently waiting for their turn. Miguel watched his younger brothers fight over a game, arguing about who goes first. The twins started pushing each other and Miguel debated whether he should go over and pop both of them on the head, but decided not to, having lost interest, and thought, amused, I don't have to be my brother's keeper, now do I? He turned his attention to a group of kids at the corner of the playground — older kids, from junior high. He watched, curious, since usually the older kids stayed off the playground. They usually congregated in the cafeteria during recess, or before school started.
There was an invisible line in the playground pecking order, where the kids older than ten years old stopped playing, and stood around doing nothing — movement, it seemed, represented immaturity. Miguel and Jacob were separate from both sides of this line, neither playing with the younger kids in games that revolved around artificial balls and artificial rules, nor just hanging with the older kids. Neither of them was very fond of the VT world, where for six hours a day they were confined. Most kids he knew lived all their waking hours, and perhaps even their dreaming ones, in the land of virtual reality, hooked up to a virtual terminal, their brain and the computer almost indistinguishable. Miguel and Jacob bonded in their rejection of VT. They spent their free time playing in the real world, with their own brand of make-believe.
Miguel noticed that the congregation of children was beginning to dissipate. At the center, a small heap lay crumpled. Miguel nudged Jacob and pointed. Simultaneously they noticed. It was John. "I guess you gotta handle it, bro. See ya after school, right?" Miguel shrugged, when he heard the bell ring. Jacob simply nodded, and turned off his VT.
"So what happened?" Jacob looked at his brother, who sat beside him, staring at the VT.
"You're missing class."
"So are you. So what happened?"
John turned and looked at Jacob, sighed and said, "Well, you know how we presented our 'what we want to be when we get older' in class today?"
"Well, at recess I came out and noticed that these boys from the class above us were talking about that assignment. I guess that one of them had a younger brother in our class so they heard about us. Y'know Robert Randall?"
"Yeah, short, squat, ugly, face full of zits."
"Well, Robert Randall saw me listening and said, 'Hey VT man! Come over here!' So I did and — "
Jacob shook his head, "It was a bad move because Randall is a jerk. You should have just avoided him."
"Oh. Well, I didn't. I went over there and Randall said, 'Hey VT man, so I heard you have a pirate brother. Are you going to ride the open sea with him? Slay dragons? Save the princess?'"
Jacob groaned, "So what did you say?"
"Well, I didn't really understand what they were talking about with the dragons and princess stuff."
"They were making fun of you. And me."
"Oh. I figured that out eventually. Well, I didn't say anything, because I was confused. I didn't understand what they wanted with me, why they were trying to talk to me. Randall pushed me at this point, and said, 'What, so you have a pirate and an idiot in your family.' I said, what?"
Jacob groaned again, "You should've walked away."
"I figured that out eventually, also. So I started to walk away and Jorge, you know Jorge?"
"Yeah, tall, ugly, face full of zits."
"Well, he said, 'Where you going to go VT boy? I don't think you are going anywhere. So you have a pirate brother huh? What's he going to be, a pie-rat.' They all started laughing at that point. I couldn't stand the way they were ridiculing you, it seemed so unnecessary. I remembered what you said about wanting to be a pirate, so, I said, 'Yeah, he's going to be brave and save the world.'"
"You said that?" Jacob grimaced.
"Yes. They started laughing. Anyway, Jorge pushed me at
this point, and then the bell rang. Randall said, 'Hey virtual toad boy, how about we steal you, and then your brother can get you and take you to your rightful owners.' I said, "What do you mean?' Randall said, 'Well, we know you are adopted, so if we take you, then your brother will have to bring you back to where you belong. To the idiot family.' They all started laughing. So then I said, 'Look. Class is starting. If you don't let me go I am going to tell the teacher you made me late.' They didn't like that at all, I don't think. Jorge said, 'Oh, so you are an idiot baby! Go on, toady boy, go tell on us.' And then he hit me in the face."
"Oh. That's why you crumpled, 'cause VT simulated you passing out."
"Yeah. How did they know about my being adopted?"
Jacob looked embarrassed, "I sort of let it slip out to Miguel. I guess he told someone else. Maybe one of his brothers."
"Oh. Why did they keep calling me an idiot?"
"Wow. You're amazing."
"Those guys were jerks. Grade A jerks. The only idiotic thing you did was going over and talking to those jerks. You're amazing because you're actually giving them the time of day, actually trying to figure out why they did anything."
"I didn't like the way they made fun of us. I didn't understand it — why they were making fun of us," John sighed. "Am I an idiot?"
"No, John, you aren't an idiot. Just weird," Jacob smiled, "Thanks for sticking up for me. That was cool."
John's face relaxed, "Oh. No problem."
"And I am going to tell Mrs. Jenson that it was your fault we're late to class," Jacob giggled, "She'll probably die of shock."
The VT was blank, having just been turned off by Jacob. During the weekend he avoided turning it on as much as possible, preferring to read his books, or to go outside and play. He lounged on his bed, listening to his father use his remote-controlled lawnmower outside.
John sat across the room, the clicking of his typing starting and stopping again.
"What are you doing?" Jacob called over the lawnmower.
"Surfing. I just entered a chat room."
"Oh." Jacob turned over on his side. "John?"
"What would you do if I went over there and crushed your VT? Would you kill me?"
John kept typing. "No."
"You wouldn't be able to go to school anymore."
"You love school."
"And you wouldn't be able to surf anymore."
"Yeah." John's typing increased in speed.
"Are you listening to me?"
Jacob yelled louder, "Why wouldn't you kill me if I crushed your VT? Wouldn't I be ruining your life?"
"Not really." John grinned. "I would just use yours."
Jacob walked outside for the first time that week. He felt the sun warm him. He stretched, and then walked into the backyard.
His mother was hunched over her tomatoes. Jacob patted his mother's head.
"I'd hug you, but I have so much dirt on me." She grinned.
"That's OK." He sat down on the damp, freshly cut grass. He watched his mother trim the dead leaves off the plant, swiftly throwing them into the composting pile across the yard.
"Why don't you use the Mr. Garden?" Jacob pointed to the inactive robot on the screened porch.
His mother reached up and wiped dirt off her face. "I like doing it myself. Why do you read books from the library, rather than on the VT?"
Jacob picked up some shears and started to trim the grass. "I'm worried about John."
His mother sighed. "He told me about the incident in school."
"Yeah. I'm not worried about that."
"Well, what then?"
Jacob stood up, and started to trim the leaves off the old pecan tree.
"He doesn't have a mommy."
Out of habit, his mother pulled the shears away from him. She pursed her lips.
"Yes, he does," she said firmly.
"Well, he's got you, I know. But not a real mommy."
His mother looked startled.
"What makes you say that?"
"I looked it up in the VT. I looked up adoptions. It said that the mommy gives the baby away."
She relaxed a little, her tense shoulders dropping. "We've gone over this, Jacob, since you were little. You've known what adoptions are for a long time."
"But I looked up his birth certificate. It has your name on it as the mother." He looked at her pointedly. "Not the real mother. In adoption info it said that the birth parents' names go on the certificate."
His mother started to throw her clippings into compost pile. "Why all these questions right now?" She paused, and then looked over at him. "What, you wanted to meet them or something?" She laughed at her own joke.
Jacob's face froze. He mumbled, "Yeah."
"What?" She stopped laughing. "But, why, Jacob?"
"I don't know." He whispered, "Maybe to see if they wanted him back. Just for a little bit." He saw his mother's face, and then ran inside.
Their parents were waiting in the living room for them. They were having company.
John had reluctantly turned off his VT, and put on some nice slacks and a shirt with a collar.
Jacob had taken a bath, but had put his old clothes back on.
Both were nervous, and curious to see what this was all about. It had been a very long time since they had had company. Jacob wasn't sure if he could remember the last time.
They quietly walked into the living room, and their parents stood up. A stranger sat in their father's favorite chair.
"Jacob, John, this is Dr. Imelda Wang." The woman nodded, smiling slightly.
The brothers sat on the couch, with John leaning forward attentively and Jacob eyeing his feet.
"Your parents have told me a lot about you two." She smiled at John. "I haven't seen you since you were a baby."
His mother leaned over to her children, twirling her hair with her fingers, nervously. "Dr. Wang is here to, um, explain some things to you two."
"I hear you have been having some questions," Dr. Wang nodded at Jacob.
Jacob kept staring at his feet.
"Jacob, remember this morning?" His mother urged him. His father coughed.
"Are you here to take him away?" Jacob frowned.
His mother and father both began talking at once. Dr. Wang waved her hand, instantly quieting them.
"Jacob, I'm a psychologist." She tilted her head. "Do you know what that is?"
"Why do you think John would be 'taken away'?"
"Because he's not ours."
"Why do you think that?"
"I read about these things." He eyed her curiously. "He's a black market baby, right? I don't know if this matters, but I didn't mean what I said to Mom earlier. I don't want John to go away, I was just — "
"John wasn't stolen. He is legitimately part of your family."
"John, Jacob, your parents probably should have explained this to you earlier." Dr. Wang ignored the father's coughing,
"They were supposed to explain this earlier."
"I know this is probably going to be difficult, son." Their father said. "I want you to know that we love you know matter what."
Jacob wondered who exactly he was talking to.
"What your parents are trying to say," Dr. Wang's voice took on a frustrated edge, "is that they were not completely truthful with you when they said you were adopted. They led you to believe that John had birth parents, which in fact he does not." She turned to John. "When your parents were trying to have a baby, at the time they had many options, in vitro fertilization, cloning, all sorts of medical techniques to aim for having a child. However, at the time nothing worked. They then assumed that natural childbirth would not be a reality — an assumption which you, Jacob, obviously disproved."
Jacob listened to the doctor drone on and on, tuning her out.
He was in a field, running as fast as he could. But when he leapt, bouncing off the ground, he stuck in the air, flying. He kept going up, heading for a very large cloud in the sky, twirling as he slid by a cotton candy whiteness. He jumped over the cloud, increasing his speed, waving his arms like a bird, going so fast that he felt like he would never stop.
He flew right through his brother, then slowed down, and headed back to the cloud.
"Hi." Jacob said, landing next to John, who was levitating effortlessly.
"What do you want?"
"Are you mad at me?"
"No." John suddenly dropped, flying towards the ground. Jacob sighed and then followed his brother, hating the feeling of the simulated drop.
"Why did you pick this tree?" Jacob asked, almost getting caught in one of the branches. John hung from the top branch from his legs.
"I programmed it. I wanted to see how it would look from above." He laughed bitterly. "It is about as real as me."
"Don't say that." Jacob tentatively hung himself from the tree. "Anyway, you like virtual things."
"Yeah, it's what I relate to, I guess." John did a somersault off of the branch, and landed on an eagle that was passing by.
"Is that one of yours?" Jacob asked, holding onto dear life to a flying chicken he conjured up.
"Yep." John's grimace turned into a small smile. "I guess my programming skills are much more elegant than yours." He pointed to the chicken, whose wings flapped clumsily.
"Nope." Jacob's chicken turned into a pterodactyl. "I was just being nice."
John started to fly higher, the blue sky suddenly being transformed into a deep black empty space. A random moon rock almost knocked Jacob off his pterodactyl. Startled, it turned back into a chicken.
"Fine. I guess you are better than me."
"We virtual things stick together." John's eagle slowed down to a hover, and Jacob followed suit. They both watched a spinning earth below them. "Why are you bothering me?"
"I'll go away if you want." Jacob transformed his chicken into a hover board. "Although, I am not sure how to get back."
"You can turn off the VT."
"You can too."
"Not really. I am not going to ever go back there."
"John, Dr. Wang's a jerk. Just because she says you are a robot, doesn't mean you have to be like this."
"No, she isn't. She's just a psychologist. What does she know?"
"She's the psychologist who evaluated them, to approve their buying me."
"That's what they say." Jacob shook his head. "They're just doing this to punish me, because I told Mom I wanted you to be taken away."
John glanced at Jacob, his eagle slowly disappearing. He stood there, walking with black space surrounding him. "That doesn't make sense. Why would they punish me?"
"Why is this so important?"
"I don't know."
Jacob let go of his hover board, and walked beside him. "You're still loved. You're not real, and they love you more than me."
"Thanks. That baloney makes me feel much better."
"Well, it's the best I can do." Jacob shrugged.
"Fine." John smiled and turned off his VT. "I guess it will have to do."
. . .
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