By Jennifer Lee Rossman
The beeps cut through the hazy silence of pre-dawn. They're the long, slow beeps of a truck backing up somewhere in the distance, and that can only mean one thing.
The instant the beeping stops, the children scurry out of our hiding places, eyes gleaming hungrily. Like rats, we pour out of concealed doors and surge up from hatches beneath the ground, eager to paw through the new offerings.
In triumph, they hold their finds aloft and call out to the others, naming their prizes in case someone wants to swap.
"Video game controller!"
Treasures are traded and collected in burlap bags, "thingies" identified as the beaters to an electric mixer, and the junkyard children scatter back to their subterranean hideouts.
Only I remain aboveground, scurrying not like a rat but a spider. My chair's mechanical legs pick their way over piles of humanity's refuse, actuators and pistons firing rapidly to create seamless movement.
The other kids have taken all the good stuff, the things they can turn into toys and machines, but I always like their rejects best. The double discards, so useless not even orphans living in a junkyard wanted them.
This is where I found most of the parts to my chair, in the engines of rusted-out cars and video game controllers so old they still have cords. An office chair, reupholstered with an old skirt, with armrests and side supports made of parts of those little walkers for babies to scoot around in...
The boring, structural parts, of course. Rusty and Chevrolet commandeered all the bells and spinny toys for their security system. I don't think they needed a security system, since we junkers respect boundaries and no one from the outside has ever broken in, but it makes them feel safe, and sometimes that's all you need to turn a junkyard into a home.
Not much good stuff left today. A few springs, a chipped mug, a creepy monkey doll with soulless eyes...
A colorful piece of paper catches my eye, poking out from underneath a deflated basketball. I guide my retractable arm and pick up the paper with its pinchers - it's an advertisement for... something to do with robots. I don't know. The pictures are pretty, in any event.
I'm good with building. Taking things apart and putting them back together. Reading... not so much. You don't need to read in the junkyard; that's what the community is for. Need something built? I'm your gal. Have a few veggies and want them turned into soup? Bring them to Possum. Cut your hand on a sharp thingy even though you were being real careful? Head on down to Doctor Scrap's office, third corrugated metal hut on your left.
And if you want something read, be it a dog-eared copy of Charlotte's Web or the warning label on a toaster, you bring it to my sister Gator.
I make a hundred-and-eighty degree turn and scurry back to the organized chaos of our improvised town.
At first glance, it doesn't look like much. Just piles of junk and some old cars, but if you look close, you see it. The tattered welcome mats in front of the doors, the way the rats and seagulls congregate in one area because Rusty feeds them. You see the broken flower pots turned into stepping stones, the sheetmetal cut and twisted into pinwheels that catch the breeze as it whips down the canyons between scrap heaps.
All those little touches that make it home.
I turn down a path lined with the glittering remains of someone's shattered Christmas baubles, my eight pneumatic legs clinking like music on the glass. When I come to mine and Gator's pile, I open the refrigerator door that looks like it's been propped up all casual-like, but it's really welded to the rest of the pile, which has been carefully constructed around a hollow shell of a hut. It should be dark but our two-room house glows with strings of lights shaped like palm trees and flamingos.
Gator looks up from her book at the sound of my footsteps. At seventeen, she's two years older than me, and much taller than I'd be if I could stand. She says she got Mom's legs and I got Dad's brains, but I don't know about that. She went to school before we came here; she can read and tell time and knows the Pledge of Allegiance and everything.
She remembers what Mom and Dad looked like, and what our names were before we were Gator and Spider. Back when the system tried to split us up because no one wanted a kid who couldn't walk.
"Good haul this morning?" Gator asks.
"Maybe." With a flick of my joystick, I extend my pinchers and drop the flyer in her lap. "What does this say? It looks like it's about fighting robots. Is it about fighting robots? Are the fighting robots for sale or--"
"You know most of these words," Gator says gently. "Let's try to read it together."
She comes around to stand next to me, leaning on one of my mechanical spider legs. She moves her finger along the words, but they're in a flashy font that distorts them. It's like trying to build a curling iron out of toasters - I recognize pieces but can't see how they fit together.
"'This weekend,'" Gator reads. "'Mecha brawl in Capitol Arena. May the best giant robot win! Cash prize--" She falters, the words catching in her throat and her eyes bugging out of her head.
"Ten thousand," I say helpfully.
Numbers make more sense than letters; they're always the same. Ones are ones, twos are twos. They can become tens and twenties, but that's just another way of saying "ten ones" and "ten twos." They can't be silent or long. Seven isn't a sometimes number like Y is a sometimes vowel.
Gator nods slowly. "'Cash prize of ten thousand dollars,'" she whispers.
I can't remember ever going shopping, but I've seen enough price tags to know that's a lot of money. Like, hundreds of blenders' worth.
Just think of all the junk we could buy with that... New junk, even, that no one else has used or broke!
Gator eyes me curiously, her sharp gaze the same one I use when trying to fit parts together. She looks at my eight metal legs, my pinchers, my joystick... and then a slow grin comes over her lips.
"So what is a mecha?" I ask. "Is it just a fancy fighting robot?"
Chevrolet makes an uncertain gesture with her hand and looks at her brother, Rusty, for confirmation.
"Kind of," he says, and the two of them walk around me again, scrutinizing. "They're big in Japan."
"They're big everywhere," Chevy points out, extending a tape measure over my head and frowning at the results. "Big big."
"Real big big," Rusty agrees. "Fifty feet tall, with lasers and hammers and bitey mouthparts."
"And they stomp around like Godzilla."
"And breathe fire."
I'm pretty sure they're exaggerating at this point, but their grubby little faces look so serious that I'm starting to doubt this plan.
"So... can we turn my spider chair into a fighting mecha?"
They confer with each other, rubbing their chins like two pint-sized, redheaded professors.
"No," they say in unison.
"Not possible," Rusty elaborates. "You're too small."
His sister grins wickedly. "But let's try it anyway."
I let out a whoop of excitement and hurry after them as they head off into the wild outskirts of the junkyard, where we start plucking pieces for my new parts.
Rusty holds up a power drill. "We could replace your hex wrench with this!"
"But I like my little wrench."
"What are you gonna buy when you win?" Chevy asks, picking up a dryer door and brandishing it like a shield.
I shrug and climb up a scrap heap. My legs slip and grapple for purchase, but my gyroscopic seat keeps me upright until I'm at the very top. From here I can see the whole patchwork quilt that is our dump - the bright colors of the car lot, the black piles where we stack the tires... all lit up in the gold of a late afternoon sun.
The kids - my adopted brothers and sisters and non-binary siblings - run and play and work out there. Simple lives born of some tragedy or another, people who were once broken but made whole again with rivets and screws and scrap metal.
You can't do anything here without other people. I've fixed them up just as often as they've fixed me.
"I don't know," I say. "Maybe I'll just split it with everyone."
I can't remember the last time I saw so many adults.
The arena buzzes with sound and movement, its seats packed with more people than I thought existed in the entire world. Even from backstage, peering out from behind a door like the kind that Gator says used to unleash lions on gladiators, I can see thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic fans.
"You got this," Gator says, seeing the anxiety on my face.
She glances at a lady with a pointy face, almost like she's afraid. But nothing scares Gator, not rats or snakes or big dogs. Nothing.
I start to ask her about it, but an announcement crackles over a loudspeaker hidden somewhere in the ceiling.
Five minutes until first match - Flamezilla and The Spider, please be ready in five minutes.
Wait. I'm in the first match? I don't even get to watch anyone else first?
I feel my neck tighten and grow hot. A quick glance in a mirror confirms that my chest is red as a candy apple Cadillac.
Hang on. I look at the mirror again.
I haven't actually seen myself since the upgrades. I look good.
My chair is suspended from eight massive legs, the knees of which reach even higher than Gator's head, and we've replaced my pincher arm with a giant pair of mandibles that I can control with a big button on my joystick. A dome made of windshields covers my entire body, gleaming like the shiny body of a spider. Rusty painted a red hourglass on my back - he says that makes me extra dangerous.
The grand doors are opened into the arena.
This is it.
Chevy polishes one of my new legs, and Possum reaches under my dome to give me a bite of granola bar from her fanny pack. I wonder if the other competitors have such amazing pit crews.
I wipe my sweaty hands on my skirt and follow a stagehand out into the brightest, loudest place I've ever been. For a second I think my earpiece is staticy, but it's just the crowd.
My opponent steps out of another doorway while I'm still dazed by the crowd, and my heart jumps at the sight of it.
It must be ten feet tall, a bipedal dinosaur made of sleek metal with flames painted up its flanks.
I have never felt so small.
There must be a person inside it somewhere, but I don't see any viewpoints or eyeholes. I wish I knew where the pilot is; the rules say we're disqualified if we seriously injure the other person. Probably in the belly. I'll aim away from there.
A horn blares seemingly from all directions. Flamezilla stomps awkwardly towards me, its legs moving in stiff jerks and its tail sticking straight out behind it. Doesn't look too sturdy.
I scuttle out of the way, wondering what on Earth I can do to fight this massive thing. All those nights spent building my new chair, adding hammers and electromagnets... I never considered that it would be so big.
It could just about step on me and squish me like... well, like a spider.
We feint at each other a couple times, getting a feel for our abilities. Flamezilla is faster than it looks, but I think it's topheavy.
Smoke curls up from its mouth.
Wait. Can it actually breathe fire?
No time to waste, I quickly estimate its mass and center of gravity. If it lowered its tail and formed a tripod with its legs, it would be pretty sturdy, but if I go at it from behind...
Flamezilla bends down and opens its jaws.
I duck under its little front arms, my seat so low to the ground that my toes leave paths in the dirt. Planting my rear legs, I push on a joystick with all my strength and my front legs flip up and hook around the dinosaur's tail.
It only takes a bit of force and its center of balance is tipped. I can hear the metal creaking as the operator struggles to right itself, but it's no use. Flamezilla falls, its face hitting the ground and sending up a cloud of dust as the stands erupt in screams and applause.
My intercom crackles and Gator's voice whoops in my ear.
"Two more rounds, sis," she says. "Just two rounds, and we can afford to rent an apartment."
Does she want to move out of the junkyard?
I look out at the stands, at my family and friends in the front row. Possum and Rusty and Chevy and all them. Their grubby little grinning faces and hair done up in braids secured with twisty ties. Their waving hands that helped me build my spider when I was just a little stranger sitting slumped in an office chair.
The junkyard is our life. It's literally the only home I can ever remember having. And she wants to leave it all behind to... what? Go to school and wear matching shoes and take bubble baths?
"Gator," I say, but there's no time for this conversation as a big crane extends from the ceiling and picks up Flamezilla like it's a toy and carries it away.
Another door opens with an ominous clank on the other side of the arena.
Rusty and Chevy were right - mechs are huge.
My next opponent stands silhouetted in a haze of dust, a hulking behemoth that makes Flamezilla look like a tiny gecko.
It's shaped like the hybrid child of a snake and a rhinoceros, a fifty-foot-long, metal-plated serpent with a dozen sets of wheels and a nasty, razor-edged horn glinting at the tip of its head.
There's none of the back and forth with this one, a mecha the announcer calls "The Agro-Corn." It just charges forward, dust spraying up as its wheels leave deep tracks, and lowers its horn.
Before I know what's hit me, I'm upside down and airborne.
It'd be fun if it wasn't so terrifying.
Equations flash before my eyes. My velocity, trajectory, distance to the ground... and I fling my hands at the joysticks, setting my legs at the precise angle to catch myself.
I hit a little harder than I expected, but my legs bend and absorb some of the impact. I scurry out of the way, trying to find a weak point in the beast's overlapping armor as it barrels after me.
But do I even want to beat it? If I lose, we can go home to the junkyard and nothing will change.
I catch a glimpse of Gator in the stands. Worry lines her face, and she keeps glancing at the pointy woman. I feel like I've seen her before. Who is she?
Something's going on and I don't like not knowing what it is, but I do know I don't want to live anywhere but our home.
So I let the Agro-Corn hit me again.
I hear the snap of metal as one of my legs breaks off and goes cartwheeling through the air, and my opponent slithers away, expecting a retaliation. I let my hands drop from the controls.
The crowd gasps collectively in confusion and I hear the announcer speculating about my strategy. But I don't have one. I'm just waiting for the Agro-Corn to knock me over so I can go home.
I even lift a few more legs to make myself easier to tip, but they think I'm up to something. The Agro-Corn coils up in the corner, rolling its wheels over its plated body so it rises like a skyscraper, its massive head sitting defensively on top like a gargoyle.
The arena buzzes with equal parts confusion and anticipation.
When it becomes clear I'm not going to budge, the Agro-Corn makes its move. Its head lunges from the top of its coil. I see it as if in slow motion, how the armor plates move against one another, and I realize it won't work a second before it happens.
It's too stiff; it can't uncoil fast enough. The head keeps trying to go but the body seizes up, and the momentum sends the whole pile crashing down just inches in front of me.
The crowd doesn't so much erupt into cheers as slowly boils over, with a smattering of confused applause turning to raucous celebration as they declare me the de facto winner and lift the Agro-Corn out of the stadium.
"What was that?" Gator hisses in my ear. "You didn't even try."
I know she doesn't mean it as an accusation, but it still hurts because it's true.
"Why do you want to move out of our home?"
There's a pause. "What are you talking about, Spider?"
"You said--" My throat tightens and I have to take a deep breath to steady myself. "You said you wanted to get an apartment."
She doesn't say anything for a long moment, and I see her glance at the woman with the pointy face before she answers. "I don't want to move out, Spider. Never."
"But you said--"
"I said we can afford an apartment -- I never said we were going to live there." She nods subtly towards the woman. "She's the lady who wanted to split us up."
My memories of that night are blurry. Just shapes and sounds. Gator holding me, adults talking about us but never to us, and then running through the rainy night until Rotter found us and brought us to the junkyard.
"The tournament made us register you under your real name," Gator says. "She must have had an alert out for it."
The big doors groan again as they open for my final opponent, but I can't focus on that now.
"I don't understand. Why do we need an apartment?"
"Because I can't be your legal guardian if we don't have a permanent place of residency."
It hits me square in the chest and leaves me out of breath.
The lady doesn't want us living in the junkyard. If we lose, if I lose, she'll take us away. Gator and me will be separated, and I'll go to some institution for disabled kids run by the state. We'll never see each other again.
I have to win. Have to.
I turn and look at my final opponent.
The final opponent standing in my way of a happy life in the junkyard is not a fearsome beast.
It does not breath fire, nor does it have a giant horn. It can't fly, has no claws, and I don't see any whirling chainsaws.
It's a pyramid.
The perfect, most elegant three-dimensional shape in existence. Wide, sturdy base, impossible to tip over. Made of shiny steel triangles, which any engineer will tell you is the strongest shape.
It rolls into the arena on a low chassis, leaving no space between it and the ground for me to gain leverage and flip it. To make things worse, a wide plate extends from the front of it, a thin sheet of metal on a pivoting arm.
It's a Spider spatula.
That's it. I'm going to lose. I'm going to lose and me and Gator are going to be the next in a long line of kids who grow up and leave the junkyard. They're going to call me some weird name like Charlotte or Sally.
The spatula slides under my feet. Think, Spider, think...
As I get lifted from the ground, I pull my arms and legs towards me in preparation of rolling. I don't know if I can get up if I'm upside down, but if I can keep my momentum going--
My little hex wrench glints in the stadium lights, my only useful tool I have left. I look at the Pyramid's extended arm and my heart does a jig. It's put together with hex screws!
As the spatula starts to tip me, I hook one of my legs around its arm. It takes a careful mix of precise mathematics and wild button mashing, but I swing around until I'm hanging from one leg while I scramble to unscrew the spatula.
It tumbles to the ground, which is... much farther away than I thought it was. The crowd cheers, but the Pyramid isn't impressed. It spins, raising and lowering its arm in an attempt to fling me off.
Whee! We need to build one of these for the junkyard.
Like the spider I am, I scurry up the arm. Up close, I can see the Pyramid is made up of dozens of teeny metal plates, each attached with a six-sided screw, and I use them for traction as I climb to the top.
The stadium spins around me, a whirlwind of color and sound and cheering strangers. My family is out there, among the blurs of the crowd. My family, and the pointy lady who wants to tear us apart. I hope she's watching.
I find the screw at the very top of the Pyramid, and I turn it.
We stop spinning, as if the driver has just realized what I'm doing.
One last twist, and it all comes loose. The sides of the Pyramid crash to the ground, leaving just a metal framework for me to cling to as the driver looks up in shock.
I think the announcer says I'm the winner, but I can't hear over the roar of the crowd chanting my name.
My name. Spider. The name they call me back home among the piles of glorious junk.