“I can’t believe The Rotten Peach has an advice column,” I say. We’re walking, we’re still looking at the magazine, searching through its contents for any clues as to what the question might actually be referring to. “And by the looks of it… it’s an ironic advice column?”
“What does that even mean?” Karina asks.
“It only answers bad questions, and only with bad answers.”
“That’s so pretentious.”
We walk down streets of compact garages. Inside them are people hammering away at broken engines and half-completed robots, with sparks coming out of their tools and sometimes flying into the street. Karina yelps when one lands at her feet.
The Auto Area is another zoning-mandated economic sphere conceived of by city planners decades ago to improve competition and productivity in Atlanta. Only mechanics and engineers were allowed to maintain businesses here, with the rest of each block dedicated to parks and restaurants. With dozens of shops all competing with the same field of vehicle and robot repair, especially with these same businesses each competing for government grants and development programs, the quality of service has increased drastically. So has the price, but if you really need some work done on any of your mechanical possessions, you come here.
It’s almost like having an entire row of blacksmiths back in medieval times. I’m sure SOME of these guys make old-timey weapons and armor, anyway, because there has to be a market for that with Magitek thriving so much.
Karina leans her head over close to mine to get a good view of the Rotten Peach issue while I flip through it. I would normally make some snide comment about personal space bubbles but I’m fine with it for now.
“Listen to one of these questions,” I tell Karina. “Here it goes: ‘Question. I have a friend who’s always coming over to my house and eating all my food. I stopped inviting them but they keep showing up anyway. What do I do?’ Sounds like you, Karina.”
“I never eat your food and you know it! I don’t like being a bad person. I… I stole a muffin this morning, okay? There.”
I ignore her. “‘Answer. You have a case of the Vampire Friend. You invited them over once, and now they won’t go away, yes? I suggest giving them some metaphorical garlic. Only buy terrible food for a week. Kale chips. Ramune. Frozen pizza. You will notice their appearance grow rarer and by the time they’re gone you can switch back to the food you like again. You have driven a steak– er, stake through their heart.’”
Karina chuckles. “That’s really funny. Are all the questions like that?”
“Not as funny, but this one really jumped out at me. Why is this person working for an alt-weekly? They definitely can’t be being paid well.”
“I am wondering one thing, though,” Karina says. “Surely a vampire couldn’t invite themself over, right?”
“Why can’t a vampire invite themself over?” I ask. “Vampires are blood-sucking parasites. Of course they’d make friends to mooch off of.”
“I mean like, powers-wise,” she says. “A vampire isn’t allowed to enter a private place without being invited in. They can’t cross the Threshold, the magical energy aura inhabiting every home. They have to charm or seduce their way in.”
“Oh gosh, I forgot you had a goth phase. That’s so embarrassing.”
Karina fumes up into a steaming puff ball. “I was in middle school! Middle school is really tough for girls!! I was trying to escape!!!”
“I know, I know, it was a joke, it was a joke…” I try really hard to suppress a giggle. I fail.
She “grr”s at me. “The point remains, all the person has to do is stop letting the Vampire Friend over and they can’t come in anymore… I think. Or is it a one-time deal and once they enter they’re free to come and go?”
“Tough to say,” I say. “I think I would err on the side of a one-time deal, and so you’re screwed if it’s with a moocher friend. Say goodbye to all your chips.”
“What an awful world it would be if someone came into your house all the time and ate all your food,” Karina says. “I don’t know how lucky I am to have you instead of, like, generic shitty friend #15.”
“Yeah I’m closer to generic shitty friend #28,” I say.
“Though, there’s one way a Vampire Friend could persist forever and nobody could do anything about it. Communism. Everything is a public space now so they can go wherever they want. I wonder if the Soviet famines were caused by a bunch of annoying friends…”
“A horrifying thought. Capitalism has its benefits after all.”
It doesn’t seem like I can find an answer to that “Some may like it” crossword question anywhere inside the magazine itself. I was hoping that it was a hint to something else in there, but… nope. I’m starting to think that this question is intentionally impossible to decipher and this crossword puzzle was a scam to sell more magazines… Just starting to think that…
“We’re almost here, by the way,” Karina says as we approach the shop. “You’re going to love it.”
“The place, or the robot?”
Karina mulls her response. “The robot,” she says. “AR73 is very nice.”
“And the place?”
“The robot’s worth it.”
We finally encounter small shop that reads “O’Conner’s Repairs,” completely indistinct from the other businesses around it except for the giant green LED-glowing O on the sign. It looks to be at least twenty years old, because parts of the display have faded or rusted at the edges. I am not sure what to expect with something like this. Is this going to be another Chuck situation? I’m not mentally prepared for Chuck-esque shenanigans.
We enter the shop and are greeted by a portly bespectacled man, towering at at least six-and-a-half feet. He wears a blue plaid shirt with a pocket, and his hair has thinned out to halfway up his head. There’s a few pencils, a calculator, and tape measure poking out from inside of the pocket. He’s reading the Atlanta-Journal Constitution at the front desk as a small TV on the wall silently plays a news channel that is right now talking about the New Hope Party’s upcoming mayoral primary debates.
The front office is starkly plain, with no identifying markers as to what kind of business this is aside from a tire hung up on the wall behind the counter. There’s a small coffee table next to two plastic chairs that have magazines from at least ten years ago. One of them is about the damn Commodore Amiga.
“Hi, Kevin,” Karina says.
“It’s Mr. O’Conner in the shop,” says Kevin, er, Mr. O’Conner, raising his head from the newspaper to look at me. You know,he doesn’t even look that old, now that I get a better look at him. He can’t be more than thirty. The sign outside seems older than he is. “You degenerates here for AR73?” He chuckles. I have no idea whether to be offended or just plain confused.
“Yeah!” Karina’s smile right now could power a home, it’s so bright.
“Karina,” I whisper to her. “Did he just call us…”
“Degenerates? Yeah, I did,” Mr. O’Conn–okay no I’m just going with Kevin–Kevin says. “What, you too sensitive to deal with a joke?” He chortles. I don’t exactly… get it. “Don’t think I’ve seen you ‘round here.”
“I’m just here with my friend. I’ve never met the robot.”
“Well, then.” Kevin extends his arm and we shake hands. “Name’s Kevin O’Conner. Nice to meet ya.”
“I’m Morgan Harding,” I say.
At that, the handshake ends, and Kevin stares me down for a few moments, trying to figure me out. I’m feeling a little uncomfortable here.
Having done that, Kevin returns to his normal sardonic expression and says, “Well, uh, Morgan, I think you’ll like it here.”
I’m not so sure about that.
If this is how the robot’s owner acts, I am really worried to find out how the robot itself acts.
Well, we’re about to see. If I don’t punch out Kevin first.