By Chris Grabenstein
Illustrated by Juliana Neufeld
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Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek at House of Robots
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Hi! I'm Sammy Hayes-Rodriguez, and if you have trouble crawling out of bed on school days, you should do what I do: live with robots!
That's right. Our whole house is filled with whirring, whizzing, rumbling, rambling robots—all of them designed by my mother. Mom's not exactly a mad scientist, but she comes pretty close.
She invented one bot named Buzz whose only job is to zip into my bedroom at exactly seven o'clock every morning, hover around my bed, and make loud, annoying noises. If you try to bop his snooze button (his little red hat), Buzz's motion detectors will sense your hand movement, and he'll scoot sideways. You'll be slapping air, and he'll keep making irritating noises until your feet finally hit the floor.
This is why I'm usually awake by 7:01.
Even my closet and chest of drawers are semi-robotic. Prepackaged sets of underwear and socks pop up the instant I tug open a drawer. The closet, which is linked to outdoor weather-reporting devices, knows what shirt, sweater, or hoodie I should wear. It's also equipped with a pants sniffer and can fling me my cleanest pair of jeans.
Why the big, robotic rush to get to school on time?
Mostly it's for my little sister, Maddie.
She's in the third grade, and trust me, there has never, ever been a kid more excited about going to school than Maddie Hayes-Rodriguez. On school days, she acts the way most kids do on snow days.
Like me, all the robots bopping around our house absolutely adore Maddie and treat her like a princess. Especially Geoffrey, the brand-new butler-bot. Mom gave him a British accent, so he sounds a little snooty.
"Good morning, children," he says to Maddie and me. "Breakfast is served."
The second he says that, the Breakfastinator—one of Mom's wackiest automated cooking contraptions—hurls a few slices of French toast at us like it's making a serve in volleyball. The machine also tosses over a couple tubs of syrup and chucks us some butter pats. You do not want to be here when the Breakfastinator serves up biscuits and gravy.
If Maddie needs anything—anything at all—Mom's robots spring into action.
If her pencil needs sharpening, McFetch, the robotic dog, will gnaw it down to a perfect point.
If she needs help with her homework, Tootles the tut-bot—a retro, rolling tutor computer—will point her in the right direction.
If she needs an after-school snack, the Breakfastinator will fling fruit at her.
As you can probably tell, my little sister is different from most kids her age.
For one thing, she's awesome.
For another, even though she's in the third grade, she only started going to school for the first time a month ago, after the school year had already started for most kids.
I'll explain later. Promise.
But first, you've got to meet E.
He's my bro-bot.
This is E.
When Mom first created him and said I had to take a robot to school with me every day, I thought E stood for Error—as in the biggest, hugest, most colossal mistake ever made. And, at first, he did make my life at school pretty nutso.
But then I found out why E had such enormous blue eyes.
Oh, right. Duh. The drawing is in black and white. But trust me, E's eyes are Blizzard Blue. The exact same color as Maddie's.
See, Mom created E (she says the E stands for Egghead) to be Maddie's eyes, ears, and voice in Ms. Tracey's third-grade classroom at Creekside Elementary.
Why doesn't Maddie just go to school herself?
She can't. Not without getting really sick.
Now, I know a lot kids say going to school makes them sick. Especially on days when the cafeteria special is the beefy-cheesy nacho surprise.
But just going to school and breathing the air and being near other kids and all their germs could make my little sister seriously ill, because Maddie suffers from SCID, which is short for severe combined immunodeficiency. Basically, it means Maddie's body has a really hard time fighting off any kind of infection. If somebody coughs and forgets to cover their mouth, she could wind up in the hospital.
So what does it all mean? Well, Maddie hardly ever leaves home. In fact, she hardly ever leaves her room. That's why our family pet is a germ-free robot dog. Why Mr. Moppenshine, the multiarmed multitasker, is constantly cleaning and disinfecting everything.
It's also why the only way for Maddie to actually go to school is for E to go there for her.
"You'd better hurry up, you guys! You don't want to be late."
That's my dad. Noah Rodriguez, the world-famous graphic novelist. He works from home, so he's never late.
"Your father is correct," says E. "We must not tarry."
Yep. E still sounds a little robot-ish. But he can't help it. Mom made him that way. Guess what she's making next? I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think it'll help Mr. Moppenshine scrub the toilets.
"Let's go, Sammy."
That's Maddie, speaking through E, just like she'll do at school. When the first bell rings, Maddie will run E from the nifty control pod set up in her room.
I just hope she doesn't make E do something super girly, like scream about boy bands or spin like a ballerina.
At least, not while I'm around.
I think E and I are going to be a little tardy for school today.
When we step out the back door and hurry down the steps—something, by the way, that E does incredibly well for a robot—there's a whole mob of people waiting for us in the driveway.
I guess word has spread about what E's been doing for Maddie at the elementary school.
A few faces in the crowd are familiar. I recognize the ones who teach or work at Notre Dame, the university where Mom is a professor of computer science in the College of Engineering. I also see star reporters from the South Bend, Indiana, TV news shows. The people I've never seen before are mostly wearing suits and ties.
Mom, of course, is there, in her lab coat, beaming proudly.
"Eggy, why don't you show these folks some of your moves?" she suggests.
"My pleasure," says E.
He moonwalks across the driveway to the garage, where my dad hung a basketball hoop.
"Feed me the b-ball, Sammy," says E. "Bounce me the rock. Distribute the basketball."
Yup. I taught E every bit of basketball slang I know.
I toss him the ball. He twirls around and makes a high-arcing shot.
E snags the ball as it bounces off the backboard, and he lands with a hydraulic, knee-bending FLOOSH, FLISH, FWUMP. Then he springs back up, like he has rockets in his heels, and—WHOOSH… THUNK!—tomahawk-dunks the ball.
The crowd goes wild.
"But wait, there's more!" says E, sounding like a late-night TV infomercial. "With Maddie's help, I can also spell all of this week's vocabulary words. For instance, flutter. F-L-U-T-T-E-R. Now I will use it in a sentence. 'My butter will flutter over my toast.' Speaking of toast, I can also make toaster tarts for a tasty after-school treat."
You guessed it. Warm pastry topped with swirly icing shoots out of his ears.
"Dr. Hayes," says a roly-poly man with a belly that's about to pop a button on his shirt, "your creation is magnificent."
"Thank you, Mr. Riley."
Oooh. I've heard Mom and Dad talk about Mr. Max Riley at the dinner table before. From what I picked up between bites of mac and cheese, Mr. Riley is a very important, very wealthy graduate of Notre Dame who gives a lot of money to his old school.
"As the largest contributor to the College of Engineering," Mr. Riley continues, "let me just say that this is a great day for Notre Dame! And, if I may quote legendary author Kurt Vonnegut, 'Science is magic that works.'
"So three cheers for Professor Elizabeth Hayes and her magical robotic creation, E, the substitute student!"
As a dozen people start singing the "cheer, cheer" part of the Notre Dame fight song, E and I climb aboard our bikes.
We pedal away, stirring up a wake of swirling autumn leaves, and E can't resist showing off all sorts of bike stunts he learned when Mom slipped a BMX-treme DVD into his internal disk drive.
On our way to school, E and I are joined by my second-best friend since forever, good ol' Triple H himself, Harry Hunter Hudson.
Everyone just calls him Trip.
See how banged up Trip's bike is? Not to be mean or anything, but Trip is kind of a klutz. He bumps into stuff all the time. Once, he crashed his bike into a park bench he thought was making a right turn.
When Trip's not bumbling, fumbling, or dropping heavy objects on his own foot, he's usually saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. Like once, at the zoo, he said, "Are you going to eat that?"
To a tiger.
Speaking of food, Trip packs peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches for lunch every day. Nothing else. Not even a plain banana or a pack of peanut butter crackers. It's PB&Bs Monday through Friday. Weekends, too. (I've had lunch at his house. His mom buys bananas in those gigantic bunches you see on banana trees.)
Some kids at Creekside Elementary make fun of Trip and his goofy clothes and his goofier dinosaur backpack and his stinky peanut-butter-and-banana breath and his crazy klutziness, but I don't. I think hanging with him is fun.
And always interesting.
Trip and I have been second-besties since kindergarten, back when he used to dip his PB&Bs in a jar of library paste.
Having a friend like Trip doesn't exactly make you super popular in school.
But then E came along. Now everybody wants to hang with us because they think E is super-cool.
That's why, lately, Trip is so excited about school.
"These have been the best two weeks of my whole entire life," he tells me. "Even counting Disney World."
Trip says he's packed an extra peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich in his lunch box.
"It's for E. If he eats it, nobody will think I'm weird anymore, because everything E does is so awesomely cool."
"Um, E doesn't eat food," I remind Trip.
"So? He can pretend. He could hide it in his mouth hole."
"Not really. The sandwich would just gum up the speakers in there."
E reminds us both that his "primary objective" is to function as Maddie's eyes, ears, and mouth in Ms. Tracey's third-grade classroom.
"I am sorry, Trip, but I cannot have bread, peanut butter, or bananas interfering with my mission."
"That's right," says Maddie, her voice coming out of E's mouth, which, if it had one of Trip's sticky peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches mashed up inside, would sound more like "Mrats mright."
"By the way," Maddie continues, "I was just watching the morning news in my room."
I can hear the smile in Maddie's voice.
"And?" I ask.
"Be prepared," she says with a giggle. "You boys are in for a huge surprise. Maddie out."
I guess this is our surprise: a humongous traffic jam in the drop-off lane at school where everybody has lined up to greet Trip, me, and—oh yeah, I nearly forgot—E!
The drop-off lane is mobbed. Horns are honking. Parents are furious.
All because of E.
It is absolutely awesome!
"Dismount, fellows," says E. "According to the rules of safe bicycling, we should always walk our bikes through any busy intersections."
"This isn't an intersection," says Trip. "It's a parking lot! Eeh-eeh-eeh."
Did I mention that Trip laughs backward? When he does, he sounds like a mule with asthma.
"Excuse me," says E as we walk our rides over to the bike racks. "Passing on your left." Then he makes a DINKLE-TINKLE-DINK-DINK noise like a bike bell.
The crowd parts.
All the kids who go to Creekside, plus the teachers and Mrs. Reyes, the principal, are lined up on the sidewalk leading to the front door.
E gives them a slow and steady "window washer" wave.
Almost everybody is clapping and cheering. Some kids have even painted banners.
Trip is eating it up. "This is better than a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich with extra bananas!"
O-kay. I hope he never brings one of those to school.
The guys from the local news stations zoom in on us and beam our image via satellite back to their live broadcasts.
Even though 99.9 percent of everybody loves E, I'm also picking up some angry glares and annoyed sighs from Penelope Pettigrew, a girl in Maddie's third-grade class.
I don't mind her being mean to me; she's just a bratty little kid I usually ignore. But I get totally steamed when she starts making fun of Maddie.
Fortunately, E doesn't like it, either.
I'll escort your little 'sister' to Ms. Tracey's classroom," Penelope says after we're inside the school building.
She grabs for E's arm.
I block her. "Um, that's okay. I promised my mom and dad that I'd walk E, er, Maddie to her classroom every morning."
Penelope pouts and jabs a hand to her hip. "But I'm going there anyway!" She gives me a major eye roll. Penelope Pettigrew can make anything and everything sound sooooo dramatic.
"Thanks for the offer," I tell her, "but I promised."
Penelope rolls her eyes. Again. She rolls them so often, I think maybe she likes looking up into her own brain.
"Fine," Penelope huffs. "Take 'Maddie' to class. Whatever. See if I care. But your sister the robot cannot sit in the front row anymore. She blocks everybody's view. Plus, she smells like toaster tarts. YUCK!"
"Pardon me, Penelope," says E, "but I will sit wherever Ms. Tracey instructs me to sit, as is proper third-grade etiquette. But thank you for your concern. Would you like a toaster tart?"
Now she sighs, closes her eyes, and makes a stink face. "You are soooo gross."
She stomps off to Ms. Tracey's room.
"Come on, E," I say. "The bell's about to ring." I turn to Trip because he and I are in the same class. "Save me a seat."
"How about the one next to mine?"
"No problemo. Nobody else ever wants to sit there anyway."
Trip heads off to our classroom while E and I hustle down the hall through a swarm of first, second, and third graders, most of whom want to fist-bump with me and E. I glance at my watch.
In exactly one minute, Maddie will take over complete control of our bro-bot.
From the doorway to her classroom, I ask Ms. Tracey where she would like "Maddie" to sit.
"Up front like always," says Ms. Tracey with a smile. "We don't want anything blocking her view of the Smart Board."
"OMG," I hear Penelope mutter under her breath. "Total teacher's pet."
"Thanks for the official escort," says Maddie from inside E. "I'll take it from here."
We say our good-byes, and Maddie expertly marches E down the rows of desks. His hydraulic legs are ZHURR-CLICK-ZHURRing perfectly. Most of the kids in the classroom, the ones who aren't Penelope Pettigrew, smile and wave at E—I mean Maddie.
"Hi, Maddie," they say.
"Hi, guys," Maddie says through E. "Who wants to play basketball at recess with me today?"
All the hands (except one, of course) shoot up.
"Will you boost me up so I can dunk again?"
"You bet!" says Maddie as E takes his seat in the first row of desks.
The bell rings, and even though I should be running down the hall to my own classroom, I hang in the doorway for a few seconds. It's so cool that Maddie has so many new friends, thanks to E.
He really is Mom's best invention ever.
Well, that's what I'm thinking today.
By the end of next week?
Not so much.
During the school day, while Maddie is in Ms. Tracey's class, Trip and I are down the hall in Mrs. Kunkel's room.
Up until a few days ago, E used to sit in my class so Mom could beta test her bot for Maddie.
See those frowns on our faces? We both miss E, big-time.
Sure, he used to be sort of goofy and was always trying to spell Kyrgyzstan—even when nobody asked him to—but he was also fun.
Mrs. Kunkel tells us to open our books and read silently while she goes down to the principal's office "for a quick minute" to check in with Mrs. Reyes about something. Principal Reyes is a friend of Mom's. They even play together in a rock band called Almost Pretty Bad. Personally, I think they should change their name to Awfully Loud, because they're pretty awful. And loud about it, too.
Anyway, the second Mrs. Kunkel's gone, Jacob Gorski, who's president of the Creekside Robotics Club, switches on his latest contraption and, thumbing its remote control, sends the chunky toy robot across the room to me.
It takes forever.
I half expect the thing's batteries to die before it finally slogs its way up two desks and over three.
When it finally bumps into the leg of my chair and topples over onto its side (with its legs still chug-chug-chugging away), I notice that Gorski's plastic-brick bot has a note taped to its blocky arm; unlike E, Gorski's homemade robot doesn't have any kind of pinchers.
I tug the note free and read what Gorski has written:
Gorski's calling me the name that my worst enemy in the known universe, Cooper Elliot, used to call me: "Dweebiac."
Cooper doesn't go to Creekside anymore. He sort of got expelled for robo-napping E back in September. Now that it's the middle of October, I guess Jacob Gorski has decided he's going to take Cooper Elliot's place.
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