How to Repair a Mechanical Heart

Chapter One

Sim and Captain Cadmus huddled close in the crystal spider cave, their secret hearts thudding with untold passion.

I scroll down fast, my own secret heart thudding more than I want to admit. Plastic Sim shoots a plastic glare of judgment from his perch on the gooseneck lamp clipped to my bedpost. I know what he’s thinking, but I can’t help it. Replace “Cadmus” with “Brandon” and this fanfic graduates from terrible to tolerable in 0.3 seconds.

Abel doesn’t have to know.

Summoning all his courage, Cadmus gently touched the arm of the cerulean-haired android, his breath hitching in the eerie, dim light of the cave. “Hey, Tin Man,” he rasped. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but‌…‌I think I love you.”

My kneecaps tingle.

Sim’s smooth, impassive face betrayed no emotion, but his mechanical heart glowed blue in response. “Captain,” he intoned. “I would like to reciprocate, but my sensors tell me‌—‌”

“Screw your sensors,” said the captain, just as he had before, the day their ship first crashed on this red planet of terrors. His brawny hand massaged the android’s thigh. “Who cares what they think? Who cares what anyone thinks?”

“That is a useful perspective.”

I pull my laptop screen closer. I grab Plastic Sim and clutch him to my chest, like Gram with her blue moonstone rosary beads.

A crystal spider bayed in the distance. Cadmus knew it was now or never. Sim’s silver eyes glittered, the red sensors on his collarbone pulsing in the dark. Cadmus let his rough fingertips trail down Sim’s face, wanting to kiss him and be him all at once, and in their warm electric closeness the android smiled and murmured‌—‌

“Kathy! Get the door, willya?”

I slam my laptop shut. Plastic Sim clatters to the floor, right by the suitcase I packed and re-packed three times. Five words from Dad downstairs and I’m back to the real me: a dumbass on solar-system sheets, sneaking forbidden Castaway Planet fanfic and putting off leaving for a six-week trip I sincerely should have said no to. I wriggle out of bed and rescue Plastic Sim, slip the action figure in the pocket of my cargo shorts.

Then a different downstairs voice:

“May I come in?”

I freeze with my hand on the suitcase.

Footsteps shuffle; the front door whines shut. I hold my breath. It can’t be him. It was Dad doing an impression, or the hot new weatherman on Channel 12. If there’s a God and he still likes me even a little, he wouldn’t let this happen. Not when I’m already freaked about this trip.

“Brandon?”

Mom downstairs. I picture her peeking around the banister, still in the funny apron she wore to make our pancakes this morning. If God wanted me to cook, why did He invent restaurants?

I clear my throat. “Yeah.”

“Come on down, okay?”

I hear the visitor again: Oh Kathy, did you make this awesome wreath? and Greg, how’s that garden? My mouth goes sandy. This is happening. If I were Natalie I’d find a way out of this; Mom would knock on my door two minutes later and I’d be halfway down the street with my earbuds in and my fists jammed in my pockets, the fire escape ladder still swaying from the windowsill.

I pull in a breath. It hurts.

“Be right there,” I yell.

I yank on my favorite Castaway Planet shirt‌—‌blue with red letters, freshly ironed with the Steamium I got for graduation‌—‌and trudge downstairs. My suitcase bumps behind me. The living room smells normal, like syrup and coffee, except there he is on the flowered couch with his wide white smile and the rumpled curls that make the girls check The Thorn Birds out