At the junkyard, Iron Boy dreams of an afterlife for machines. He watches the heat shimmer over the heaps of trash and imagines the souls of all the gathered refuse ascending to the other side. He likes to think that in heaven, each piece of rubbish would find itself replenished, the blenders and refrigerators and the husks of old cars once again new and glimmering on the factory floor, ready to be useful again.
The summer heat has turned his world radioactive. Sorting scrap with his mother, Iron Boy can’t help but feel like some urchin of the apocalypse, thumbing his way through the ruins of civilization. It’s not a bad sensation, despite the sweat gathering in uncomfortable creases along his underwear. The hot air is cleansing. Every time he breathes he knows he is simply expelling exhaust, clearing a little room inside himself to make way for all his inner machinery.
He holds a burnished hubcap in one hand and a rusted pipe in the other, willing the junk into sword and shield. He licks his upper lip and tastes salt. When he bashes the metal together like a centurion calling out for war, his mother pulls her torso from the mouth of a discarded washing machine, a smile already on her face. She runs a thick hand along her forehead and leaves a shimmering trail of grease behind.
“Careful, Road Warrior,” she says. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
Behind his mother, Mr. Ramirez stands sentinel, arms crossed and face locked in the usual scowl. He scrutinizes each spring and screw that Iron Boy’s mother gently extracts from stained mattresses and old window frames. He is looking for hidden treasure—wondering if she is going to find some precious antique or valuable bit of metal that he missed in his own survey. But for all the years she has been coming here, Iron Boy’s mother has never taken anything of obvious value. She mostly gathers large hunks of scrap metal, easily melted down in the foundry she’s constructed in the backyard, and anything—thin strings of wire from the insides of clocks, chains unwound from rusted bicycles, torn fan belts brought in from the abandoned factories nearby—that can be reworked into the creaking interiors of her machines.
The hubcap is for Iron Boy’s brother, Max. A peace offering of sorts. This is Iron Boy’s final summer before high school, a time when his older brother should be sharing valuable intel about how to survive the coming years, but instead he stays locked inside his room, brooding under his posters of Mustangs and Cadillacs. When Iron Boy tries to make conversation, he meets either silence or scorn. He thinks his brother might like the hubcap, which glows bronze under the sunlight. He thinks he might like to hang it on the wall next to his posters.
The pipe is for Kaito. The thought of his friend holding the weapon in his hand makes Iron Boy’s palms sweaty, the pistons in his chest caught on some string of his heart, straining with a familiar ache.
A tremendous weight hangs in the air. The heat is raising certain possibilities. Summer is only beginning and Iron Boy knows change, of some kind, is on the way.
His mother calls out for him, but she uses the wrong name. She calls him Ned. She says it again and again, so Iron Boy keeps his eyes locked on the heaps of trash. He has demanded to be called by his rightful name for a year now.
“Iron Boy,” his mother finally says, anger and exhaustion circling the edges of her voice. But when he turns, she’s smiling.
“Let’s go home, weirdo.”
* * *
Iron Boy finds his brother in the garage, where the heat is worst. The air conditioning has been broken for a month now, and there are no plans—and no money—to fix it. He’s sitting on the ground, his back against the tire of their father’s truck. Sounds of clicking and whirring dominate the space—their mother’s mechanical spiders, wandering their aimless courses along the cement floor.
Max holds a spider in his hand, twisting a small copper key in its back, winding up the spring that will propel it forward. Iron Boy is surprised to see the spiders—neither boy has touched them since they were kids. Back then, they were everywhere. Toy stores couldn’t keep them in stock longer than a few hours. Everyone wanted one. It was their mother’s first big break as an inventor. Also her last.
Iron Boy holds out the hubcap. “I got you something,” he says. “From the scrapyard. You missed some good stuff today.”
“That’s junk.” Max doesn’t look up. He finishes twisting the key and sets the spider on the floor, its legs already wriggling. It scuttles forward, running over a wet spot on the concrete, leaving thin spiraling trails of moisture on the ground as it goes along.
Max stares at the wet spot for a moment, and then looks up. Above them, a brown stain is spreading on the ceiling—leftover rain from spring, steadily dripping onto the garage floor. Iron Boy might be wrong—the garage is so dark—but his brother’s eyes have a strange glint to them. They almost look gold. But Max’s eyes should be green.
“This place is falling apart,” Max says.
A shudder grips Iron Boy’s spine. He doesn’t like how Max says the words, as if each one is something delicious. “Are you all right?” he asks.
But Max only laughs. His mouth looks different, too. His teeth seem sharper.
Iron Boy leaves, unsettled. He goes to his mother in the workshop, where she is leaning over her foundry, her face flushed, her goggles reflecting the flames below.
“Something’s wrong with Max,” he says.
“Max is seventeen,” his mother replies, leaning away from the heat and taking off her goggles. “That’s what’s wrong with him.”
“No. It’s not like that. He looks different.”
But Iron Boy’s mother seems to miss the words. Her eyes are focused on the hubcap in his right hand.
“You gonna use that?” she says, almost licking her lips. “My foundry could use a snack.”
He hands it over.
* * *
“I think my brother’s a monster.”
It feels strange to say the words, to have them manifest in the world, heavy ingots in the atmosphere. Kaito turns to look at him, eyebrows raised, ready for a punch line. They’re sitting in an abandoned bus at the edge of the woods that separate the houses in the lower valley from the ones above. Just a few yards away, the pine trees spread out into a clearing, where they can both see the Rio blimp in the distance, hanging above the valley like a bright white marshmallow.
“Cool,” Kaito says. A bead of sweat falls down his face, dripping off the end of the piercing in his nose.
“It’s not cool,” Iron Boy replies. He’s heard stories of what they do to monsters. Special camps where they clip their claws and saw down their teeth. Dangerous jobs in manufacturing and the military. His brother wants to be a NASCAR driver. He’s never heard of any monsters in NASCAR.
Before Kaito can reply, a familiar hum, like the sound of a wasp’s nest, fills the air. Both boys turn toward the clearing. Kaito grips the .22 rifle beside him on the leathery green seat and points it out the window, resting its barrel on the rusted metal lip.
Soon a Rio drone wizzes by the trees, a bright orange package gripped in its plastic talons. This one is small: a quadcopter no bigger than a racoon. Iron Boy has just enough time to press his fingers into his ears before Kaito fires the gun.
The drone buzzes by, unscathed. Kaito put the gun beside him again and slumps in the seat. “Shit,” he says. “There goes another one.”
“It’s not cool,” Iron Boy says again.
Kaito smiles. “Not cool, then. Interesting. Which is the most you can ask for in this place.”
Iron Boy knows what he means. Their town is dying, deflating in the valley like a punctured lung. The mines and sawmills have long since closed, and the only factory still running is the one where Iron Boy’s dad works, manufacturing washing machine nozzles. If it wasn’t for the Rio blimp and its delivery drones, there wouldn’t even be anywhere to shop—the town’s only department store had closed last year, and the closest one was fifteen miles away. Thank God for online retailers.
But Iron Boy doesn’t need any more “interesting” in his life. His mother, with her foundry and her spiders, is more than enough. Plus he has Kaito, who once peed in Steve Smith’s locker after he called Iron Boy fat.
The hum returns. Kaito grabs the rifle. Iron Boy plugs his ears while his friend shoots. He looks out the window, expecting to see the drone floating into the distance, but sees instead a heap of metal in the tall grass, an orange box glowing on the ground like a power-up in a video game.
“I hit it,” Kaito shouts. “I actually hit it.”
As they rush toward the clearing, the pistons in Iron Boy’s chest run overtime and he feels high—frightened and alive. They’ve never hit one before. The Rio blimp, usually such a placid sight, hangs with foreboding now. Iron Boy wonders if the ship’s interior is already spurring into action, spewing out more drones to go and search for their fallen comrade. Somewhere, servers are lighting up in a frenzy, triggering digital alarms, crying out in binary.
Kaito beats the box with the pipe Iron Boy brought him from the scrapyard. The containers only have rudimentary locks—a company as rich as Rio can replace any package it loses—and it easily breaks under the pipe’s weight. Inside, they find a freshly shrink-wrapped copy of Devil. Both boys smile at one another. Iron Boy’s never stolen anything before and he’s scared out of his head, but he doesn’t say a word. Kaito is holding the game in his hand and looks triumphant, like the guy who rides into town on a motorcycle in old movies, ready to raise hell.
“Let’s go, Iron Boy.”
The name is a spark in his gut.
* * *
For years, Iron Boy has theorized that he’s a machine. Specifically: one of his mother’s. Perhaps her greatest work. He might look like a normal fourteen-year-old boy—pudgy, short, his eyes and mouth too close to his crooked nose—but he knows the truth. Underneath his skin, he is all whirring gears and sliding plates, cogs and actuators.
He’s never told anyone, not even Kaito. He doesn’t have any proof. He doesn’t even know the specifics—if he is all machine or only half, like a cyborg. He knows that he bleeds, that can he cry (he knows this one well), but he doesn’t know if the fluids are real or synthetic, if he’s been filled up like a balloon with dyed engine oil.
But he knows. Without a doubt. It’s not a thing you can explain. At night, he can swear he hears it—the tiny wires and meshed metal sliding around inside of him, contorting around his fabricated organs. If he plugs his ears, he can almost locate a tick in his heartbeat, something mechanical.
By all accounts he seems like a person. He eats food, for example, which is strange for a machine. He shits and pisses, too, but no process—mechanical or otherwise—is without waste. He thinks his insides might be like a steam engine. Maybe there is a fire in his belly, a core of warmth that eats up all that carbon and spins a piston in his rib cage. He doesn’t dwell on particulars. Who does? Who sits around wondering how their lungs inflate?
His theory is something like this: his mother, the master inventor, grew tired of building mechanical spiders right around the time people got tired of buying them. She already had one son the normal way, so she decided to build a second. The ultimate test of her skills. It wouldn’t surprise Iron Boy—he knows his mother is a genius, he’s seen how she toils at her forge all day—even if the rest of the world pretends like it’s forgotten her.
Obviously his mother couldn’t have a machine boy wandering around her house—people would be uncomfortable, would probably call the police—so she made Iron Boy look real, covered him in skin (Was it made of plastic? Rubber? He wasn’t sure) and imbued him with pain sensors and olfactory synthesizers. This way, even he wouldn’t know he was a machine.
His father must be in on it, too. Otherwise, he might have let slip that Iron Boy had never been born in any hospital, that his mother had never been pregnant. It would explain why he’s never shown Iron Boy any photos of his mother sporting a baby bump. Iron Boy assumes his parents are hiding the truth, that they only want Iron Boy to live a normal life, until the day he’s ready to learn just how special he really is.
He doesn’t know how he grows. He often wonders if his mother comes to him when he’s asleep, replacing his body’s parts incrementally each night. Maybe this is why she always looks so tired; why she sleeps so much during the day.
He also doesn’t know how he tastes food. How he feels hungry or tired or sick. Why his mouth gets dry and his words get jumbled when he’s trying to sound clever around Kaito.
But he knows he’s a machine. Beneath his skin, he’s a galaxy of moving parts. That’s why his name is Iron Boy. It’s a wink and a nudge to his family, his special way of telling them that he knows the truth, without ruining the surprise. He understands it must be a shock for them, to know that he’s discovered their secret at such a young age. He understands why they still, despite his protests, sometimes stumble and call him Ned. But he’ll always be Iron Boy. No one needs to know why it’s the name he chose—they just need to say it.
* * *
There are two characters in Devil. The warrior and the rogue. The game is simple. You start in a dungeon. The game says: you’re a hero. At the bottom of this dungeon, the Devil is waiting, and it’s your job to kill him. The dungeon is full of bad guys—demons and zombies and walking skeletons—and you have to kill them, too. The more you kill, the stronger your character becomes. That’s it.
Since Iron Boy’s computer can barely search the internet without freezing, they play the game at Kaito’s house, which Iron Boy would prefer anyways. He doesn’t like having Kaito in his home. He knows Kaito can see the stains on the walls and the carpet, can smell the grease and garlic in the air. He doesn’t trust his family not to embarrass him; especially with how Max has been acting lately, skulking around the house and snarling at everyone.
Kaito’s mom is a regional manager for Rio, and one of the wealthiest people in town. Their house has granite countertops and stainless-steel kitchen appliances and broad windows that look out over the valley below. Their fridge is full of vegetables and neon-colored juices. Kaito’s dad lives in Japan and no one mentions him.
They take turns playing. Iron Boy picks the warrior because he’s strong and straightforward. He has a big sword and bigger muscles and playing him mostly involves running around the dungeon and hitting things. When his warrior springs a trap and gets cut in half by some blades descending from the ceiling on the dungeon’s fourth floor, Kaito takes over.
Kaito plays the rogue. She is more complicated. She sticks to the shadows and surprises her enemies, slicing their throats with thin daggers. Iron Boy thinks this is a good choice, because Kaito is a rogue himself. He was the one who figured out that the combination of his father’s gun case—his mom’s birthday—and decided they should take shots at the Rio drones. Kaito doesn’t care much for rules. He’s the only fourteen-year-old Iron Boy knows with blue hair and a nose piercing.
The rogue makes it to the fifth floor of the dungeon and then gets ambushed by a group of shambling undead. They trade off again and Iron Boy takes his warrior deeper, dodging the trap that killed him last time. As he plays, Kaito leans over his shoulder, the tips of his hair tickling Iron Boy’s cheek. He puts his hand on Iron Boy’s knee and grips it tight when the warrior finds himself surrounded by enemies. “Get them,” he says. “Kill them all.”
Iron Boy clicks the mouse. His warrior swings his sword. He keeps his eyes on the screen, on his warrior’s little health bar, and ignores Kaito’s fingers clasped around his kneecap, even as something golden uncoils inside his groin. He tries to stay alive.
* * *
At dinner there’s no doubt: Max is different. His eyes shimmer amber in the dim light of the kitchen. He can’t sit still. Iron Boy watches as his brother slowly introduces chaos to the room, removing cups and plates from the cupboard and casually setting them down beneath the table. He waits for someone to say something, but no one does.
His father finishes heating a pot of Hamburger Helper on the stove and slowly reaches down to retrieve a few bowls from under the table, not bothering to ask why Max has set them there. Meanwhile, Iron Boy’s mother walks in, still wearing her work overalls and gloves, her goggles pushed back over her wiry hair. Grease glimmers on her cheeks and elbows.
His father stares at her as she wanders over to the pot and begins spooning herself a portion. “Really?” He says.
Seated now, hunched over her bowl, she doesn’t reply. She’s eating fast, barely swallowing before putting more food in her mouth.
“You could at least clean up. Take a shower or something. Try to seem presentable.”
She finally looks up. “What difference does it make? I’m going right back to work. Why get clean just to get dirty again?”
A few months ago, they would have fought. It would have been cataclysmic. His father would have told her that she was being selfish—that she was setting a bad example for Max and Iron Boy. She would have told him that he was being dramatic. They would have eventually found their way to the subject of money—they always found a way to money—and Iron Boy’s father would have told her that she needed to get a job, that they were on the razor’s edge, that he couldn’t raise a family on his own. His mother would have said that she already had a job. That she was an inventor. They would have shouted for a long time.
But not tonight. By the time their father has set out dinner for Max, Iron Boy, and himself, their mother is finished and out the door. Within minutes they hear her hammering at something in her workshop in the backyard.
Max is standing by the fridge. He reaches inside, his face a brief and sickening fluorescent, and pulls out a package of uncooked ground beef. He presses a finger against the taut plastic until he punctures it, and then begins to pinch bits of the raw meat off and bring them to his mouth.
“Man,” he says between bites. “Things aren’t going well for this family.”
“Sit down and eat,” their father says, staring down into his own meal. “It’s getting cold.”
“I hear the factory is closing down, Dad. What are we going to do for money?”
Iron Boy almost misses it—the way his father hesitates before bringing a forkful of hamburger meat up to his mouth.
“Who told you that? It isn’t true. Just a rumor.”
“Everybody knows. Last I checked, Hamburger Helper isn’t free.”
Their father won’t look at Max. Normally Iron Boy thinks of his dad like a planet. He’s one of those big, round, jovial men who creates an orbit of attention everywhere they go. He hugs people when he meets them for the first time. But tonight his weight just looks heavy. There are thin folds of skin under his eyes. When he speaks, his voice is weak. Pleading.
Max sets the meat down and opens the fridge again. He pulls out a can of Budweiser. He cracks it open and begins to drink.
“Stop,” their father says. He isn’t even eating anymore. “You’re too young.”
They listen to Max gulp the beer until the can is empty. He crushes it in his hand and tosses it into the sink. He is smiling in the most unsettling way. His teeth are pointed like fangs. “No one in this family is young anymore. It’s impossible,” Max says.
Iron Boy can hear his mother working out back, her hammer striking rhythmically against the metal. He stares into his brother’s golden eyes and thinks about his warrior’s sword—thwak, thwak—cutting a monster in two.
* * *
Max was the first person Iron Boy told his name to. It was a year and a half ago, when Max was just beginning to change. His fights with their parents, usually just squabbles about staying out late or his lack of a car, had begun to erupt into volcanic affairs that burned late into the night, exiling Iron Boy to his room or Kaito’s house—anywhere to avoid the noise.
Max was on the toilet taking a shit and Iron Boy was splayed out in the tub, staring at the grout stains overhead. This was their favorite place to talk—Max said it was the perfect time for an intimate conversation. Iron Boy wasn’t a fan of the smell. But he liked to listen.
Max was explaining how catalytic converters worked. He was like their mother that way, obsessed with machines and all their greased mysteries. But where their mother loved cogs and pneumatic tubes, Max preferred the raw explosive energy of automobiles. Iron Boy didn’t understand a word, but he liked the way his brother became animated when he talked about cars, the way he clutched at the air and seemed to stumble over his own knowledge.
“It’s just for cleaning up,” he was saying. “Like a filter. It’s a lot less complicated than you’d think.”
“I want you to call me Iron Boy.”
He doesn’t know why he said it, then. He just knew that he had to. It was rare to find his brother so vulnerable, straddling the toilet and talking about what he loved, happiness running through his voice like an escaped fugitive. He seemed so bound up in his own joy that he was incapable of judgment.
“I want you to start calling me Iron Boy. That’s my name.”
He waited for a laugh but it never came. Max looked like he was thinking very hard. Whatever machinery churned inside Iron Boy’s chest was working overtime, thumping against his rib cage so hard that he felt his teeth chattering.
“All right.” Max said. “If that’s what you really want.”
And then, as if Iron Boy hadn’t said anything at all, Max took a deep breath and grunted. Iron Boy heard something plop into the toilet.
* * *
Iron Boy and Kaito hold a stakeout. Since Iron Boy’s mother is taking a rare night off, they hide in the workshop. Moonlight floods the shack and his mother’s tools glimmer like wet rocks. Even with the window open, the place holds residual heat from the foundry, and after a few minutes he and Kaito are drenched in sweat.
In the corner of the workshop, heaped among piles of springs and wire, surrounded by discarded slag from his mother’s work, something is obscured by a plastic tarp. Kaito keeps trying to peel it away, but Iron Boy stops him. He says it’s his mother’s newest invention. Top secret. No one can see it yet. In truth, he worries that it’s just a failed jumble of parts, another one of her unsuccessful attempts to invent something new.
They hear a screen door close. They huddle by the window, pushing aside his mother’s calipers and hammers.
Max is walking away from the house toward a row of cottonwoods in the backyard. He’s holding another can of beer. Overhead, the moon is so bright that staring at it feels like looking up toward the bright exit of a deep, dark well. Slowly, careful not to spill his beer, he begins to take off his clothes.
“Woah,” says Kaito.
“Gross,” Iron Boy murmurs, but he doesn’t look away.
Soon Max is completely naked. His skin looks darker than usual, and it takes Iron Boy a moment to realize his brother is covered in fur. Along his shoulders and spine, thick hair grows in tight clumps. He spreads his arms and Iron Boy notices that his brother’s fingernails have grown, too. They look like claws.
When Max finishes the beer he tosses it to the ground and howls at the moon. He’s not very good at it; he sounds less like a wolf and more like someone who’s about to throw up. A kind of desperate panting, a tired gag.
“Your brother’s a monster,” Kaito whispers. “A real one. Rad.”
My brother’s a monster, Iron Boy thinks, and the thought makes him feel sick until he turns and sees Kaito staring at him like he’s the most interesting person in the world. The smell of charcoal and grease drifts in the air. Kaito is blue in the moonlight. He looks like water. Not like real water but the way water should look: cool and glowing.
When they turn back toward the window, his brother is gone.
* * *
As you get deeper into the dungeon in Devil, things start to change. The stone floors splinter and crack. Lava flows through seams in the walls. Pits of fire open underfoot, promising danger. The enemies get bigger and uglier and more dangerous. The game feels the same but suddenly it’s much harder. It’s clear where you’re going. Straight to hell.
Eventually you reach a large chamber. There are piles of bones everywhere. All you can hear is the sound of people crying out in pain. Standing in the center is the Devil, red and evil. He isn’t easy to kill. Luckily, you’re not the same person who entered the dungeon. Killing all those monsters has made your character stronger. That’s the real joy of the game—knowing that the deeper you go, the more powerful you become.
It might take a few tries but eventually you’ll win. No game is impossible. If you can’t beat him the first time it’s no problem. Just go back and kill a few more monsters. Help your character get stronger. Then go back into the room, past the flames and bones, and kill the Devil.
* * *
Max gets worse. He tears through the house. He turns over tables and drags his fingers along the wall, leaving deep gashes. At night the whole family can hear him outside, howling. He doesn’t bother much with clothes anymore, just surges through the hallways, a scrambling mass of tooth and fur, knocking things over.
“Fuck this house!” he shouts. “Fuck this town. Fuck this family.”
There’s no more fighting. Iron Boy’s dad only leaves his room for work and the occasional bowl of cereal. His mom is always outside, busy in her workshop. Iron Boy lays in his bed and tries to ignore the heat. He tries not to hear his brother shuffling down the hallways, sniffing the air and growling. He closes his eyes and tries to hear the ticking in his heart; he flexes his jaw to feel the shifting of the gears.
One night he finds a glossy magazine on the kitchen table. On the cover, there is a long field of wheat. The words “So Your Kid is a Monster,” are printed at the top. Inside, the magazine talks about a camp, somewhere in the mountains, where parents can send their monsters. A place with obstacle courses and hiking trails, with team building exercises and vocational training classes. On the back cover a boy, his face covered in fur, his eyes bright gold, stands triumphant over a small tomato garden. Sharp canines jut out from his lower lip.
Iron Boy dumps it in the trash and goes back to his room.
* * *
Iron Boy kills the Devil first. Him and Kaito have been at the computer for hours, each taking their turn trying to kill him, their fingers greasy from the tubes of Pringles they’ve been eating. The sun is setting outside the window, turning the Rio blimp into a burning orange oval against the sky. Finally Iron Boy’s warrior stabs the Devil in the head with his sword and the creature bursts into flames. His warrior raises a single fist before the game’s credits start to run onscreen.
Kaito turns and kisses Iron Boy. He’s never been kissed before.
At first, he’s so surprised that he almost pushes Kaito away. Then he realizes what’s happening and he doesn’t. Kaito doesn’t taste like anything but he smells like sunscreen. His piercings sting Iron Boy’s skin in a cold, pleasant way.
They both stop. Kaito smiles. Iron Boy kisses him again. He puts his hand in Kaito’s ear and tugs it a little. They do that for a while.
Eventually Kaito says, “I’m leaving.”
Something integral inside of Iron Boy, some main line running down his sternum, derails. He feels the clunking of his mechanics as they struggle to stay upright. “What?”
“That drone we shot down had a camera on it. Rio told my mom.”
Iron Boy is silent.
“You’re not in trouble. My mom worked it all out with the company. She’s pretty important. Told them I was a problem child on account of my dad not being around. She wants to move us to the city. She says I have too much free time around here.”
Kaito is talking fast, as if the words are a Band-Aid he’s trying to tear off in one quick motion. Iron Boy is thinking about high school. He’s thinking about the valley, it’s empty warehouses and rusted playgrounds, without Kaito and his gun. He feels his inner workings tremble again. He thinks a gear might have shimmied loose, might have tumbled off track. Something doesn’t compute. Kaito is a variable in an equation that Iron Boy can’t solve anymore.
He wants to say: I am a machine. I am bullet proof. I am the most interesting person you will ever meet. If I peeled back my skin and showed you what was moving around underneath, would you stay?
“I’m sorry,” Kaito says. “I know it sucks. But mom’s company was probably going to leave anyways. The factory’s going to close soon. There’s nothing left here.”
* * *
The best thing about being a machine: your feelings are just one big illusion. A trick composed of sensors and pressure plates, maybe some rudimentary chemical reactions. You might feel like your heart is breaking, but the truth is that whatever you have inside of you is mostly indestructible. You might think that you’re sad, but it’s only a mechanical affectation, a kind of proximity alarm to help you pretend you’re actually human.
But it’s not real.
The truth is that you’re more complicated than anyone could ever understand. You can be augmented and amplified. As the years go on, you will be outfitted with better parts. Particle cannons and rocket launchers on your hulking shoulders. Arms the size of subway cars. You will let the old, useless parts of yourself fall away. You will grow until you are ten, twenty, thirty feet tall. You will tower over cities, floodlights for eyes, your hands gigantic guns. You will tear skyscrapers in half if you want to. Your melting point will be over 2,000 degrees. One day you could strap rockets to your legs and fly to space, keep moving until the entire world was nothing but a speck in your rearview.
Could a person say the same?
That’s the great thing about being a machine. You’re unstoppable. If you don’t like a feeling, you just turn it off like a light switch. You never have to be sad or confused. Your whole life could be falling apart—your family could be running out of money and your brother could be turning into a monster and the boy you love could be leaving for some far-off city—and it wouldn’t bother you.
And those tears running down your face as you run home, past the abandoned factories and ghost-town strip malls? Nothing more than engine oil, synthetic lubricant, maybe some excess cooling liquid. Nothing you should worry about.
* * *
When Iron Boy gets home his parents are laughing in the kitchen and the image—his father sitting down at the table, his mother reclining against the sink with a mug of coffee in her hand, both of them smiling pleasantly like the old days—makes him so furious that he picks up the first thing he sees, a porcelain rooster on the counter, and throws it on the floor. It shatters.
“Jesus, Ned!” his father says.
“Iron Boy. My name is Iron Boy.” He’s shouting now.
His mother sets her coffee down. “Are you crying, honey?”
“I don’t want you to send Max away.”
His parents look at one another. The guilt in his father’s face makes it clear who the magazine belonged to. Iron Boy realizes that he has stumbled into the final moment of a very long conversation. His mother speaks first.
“We’re not sending your brother away. As a matter of fact, we were just talking about him. I’ve been working on something.”
“It’s a little crazy,” his father says, almost apologetic.
“Nothing new for this family,” says his mother.
She leads the family outside. Despite his parents’ sudden affability, Iron Boy tries to hold onto his anger, but the feeling is suddenly slippery in his hands, squirming out of his grasp and escaping into the tall grass behind the house. His parents are holding hands, whispering to one another like teenagers in love, and it becomes suddenly clear to Iron Boy that they have been marching toward this moment for months, working things out behind closed doors, whispering their apologies. It’s a jarring realization, like discovering a hidden house beneath his own, populated by shadowy figures who visit the same living room and cook food in his kitchen.
With the kind of quiet reverence usually reserved for a church, they enter the workshop. His mother removes the tarp from the mysterious jumble in the corner. Iron Boy sees what looks like the slumped body of a man under the tarp, and for a moment he’s sure that his brother has finally done it, has broken into someone’s home and murdered them. But then he realizes he’s staring at a suit of armor. It looks like something a knight would wear in a movie, with sliding plates along the joints and abdomen.
“I should thank you for that hubcap,” his mother says, knocking on the suit with her knuckle “I used the steel for the chest piece. Protecting the vital organs and such.”
“I was going to wear it,” his father adds quickly. “But, well, it’s a little small for me.”
His final word hangs in the air. “What do I do with it?” Iron Boy asks.
“Bring your brother home,” his mother replies, already opening the suit and making room for him to crawl inside. “Bring him back to us.”
* * *
He waits for his brother.
The suit is surprisingly light. There are special ventilation grills just under the arms, where the cool night air streams in. After hiding in the bushes for half an hour, he’s hardly sweating. There’s a thin visor in the suit’s helmet where he can scan the yard, searching for movement. Occasionally he spots the silhouettes of his parents waiting in the living room.
When Max finally shows up, he’s all monster: dark fur and jagged teeth. He scrambles around the yard on his haunches, sniffing the bushes. He scratches his back against the wrinkled side of a tree. Something wet glistens around his mouth. Iron Boy doesn’t hesitate. His mother has done a wonderful job with the suit’s joints. He’s able to run, bursting from the bushes toward his brother, who barely has a moment to turn before Iron Boy has thrown his whole weight against his hairy flank.
Max tries to throw Iron Boy off. He snarls and bites, but his teeth only find hard metal. Iron Boy holds his brother in a bear hug and doesn’t budge. He thinks of Devil. He thinks about his warrior dying all those times and only getting stronger, about the world staying the same but only getting harder. His brother is bigger than him but Iron Boy has weight on his side. He imagines his whole life concentered into a single metallic point, something dark and dense and unimaginably heavy, and uses it to keep his brother pinned to the grass.
“This family is falling apart,” Max snarls, beating his head against Iron Boy. There is blood around his mouth, smeared and clotted in the fur.
“We’re running out of money,” Max says.
“Dad is going to get fired,” he growls.
Kaito’s words echo in Iron Boy’s head. There’s nothing left here. He sees the Devil, tall and red, surrounded by bones and fire.
“Mom is never going to invent anything new. She’s done,” says Max.
But Iron Boy knows this isn’t true. He’s living proof, after all. His mother’s greatest invention. And now he has the body to prove it. He really is indestructible. He wonders if this had been her plan all along. If she knew that Max would change one day—that the family would need a warrior, a hero, to figure things out. No matter how much his brother struggles he’ll keep holding on. Because Max, even if he is a monster, is only human. Eventually, his claws will fold away, unable to find purchase. His shouting will quiet down. He’ll loosen in Iron Boy’s arms, his limbs going slack, until the only thing that either of them can hear is their own tired breathing.
Eventually their parents will rush outside with lengths of rope. They will help tie Max up—carefully, with the kind of affection that only a family can give to a dangerous beast—and bring him back inside. They will not clip his claws or saw down his teeth. They will clear away some of the scrap and find room for him in the junkyard their life has always been. Until then, there’s only one thing Iron Boy can do.
He holds on.
Sheldon Costa is a writer originally from Post Falls, Idaho. His fiction has appeared in The Atticus Review, The First Line, apt, Literary Orphans, Driftwood Press, and Fourth & Sycamore. He is currently attending Ohio State University’s MFA program. You can find more of his work at www.sheldoncosta.com.