Lamar’s fist goes right through the robot’s chest, sending chunks of rusted metal scattering all over the ground like shrapnel from a grenade.
He pulls his arm out and then bashes his elbow against its head. It falls to the ground and collapses into a pile of broken parts. It, too, is part of that pile now, if you really think about it.
“This game’s winner is… Lamar!” I shout, clapping ferociously.
He looks back at me with mild annoyance.
I don’t know why, though. There’s six busted-up robots laying in pieces all over the makeshift arena. That’s Lamar’s handiwork after an evening training match, and it looks pretty damn incredible to me.
“I never knew you had it in you, I tell you that,” I say.
“That’s only because you didn’t watch me in the fight when we invaded Blyth’s base,” Lamar says. “Throw me a towel.”
“Oh yeah.” I AM the official waterboy of this arena this evening, so passing towels is my solemn duty. With a flick of my wrist, the towel flops into the air and circles around Lamar’s neck like a ring toss at the state fair. Just kidding, it hits him in the face and knocks his glasses off.
We’re here in the vast junkyard of Rig Family Scrap, a family-owned yard out on the outskirts towards Paulding County. I never heard of the place, but Lamar found it a month or two ago when searching for somewhere to hone his abilities to work in tandem with that glitched AI stuck to his brain.
Rig Family Scrap is famous for its discarded robot policy—you find it before they smelt it, it’s yours. The robots here are nearly inoperable garbage, but that’s where the business’s young creator program comes in—they host workshops for people who want to learn more about robotics, whether that’s building or repair or computer science, and so they build dozens of new junk bots every week.
Those junk bots, of course, become training fodder for Lamar and whoever else is gutsy enough to take on a bunch of mindless combatants all at the same time. It’s a good way to vent some rage and to work up a sweat at the same time.
And right now, Lamar’s looking particularly sweaty. He’s so drenched that his tanktop is basically see-through by now, revealing to the world his thick pecs and amazing abs. I don’t like dudes, but I can absolutely appreciate peak male physique. So manly and broad and muscly.
“Morgan, quit staring at my chest.”
“Wh-what! I wasn’t doing anything! I was just staring off into space!”
“H…Ha. Yeah, cool joke.”
“You should try robot fighting sometime. It’ll really help you get back into shape,” he says.
“Get ‘back’ into shape? Since when was I ever in shape?”
“I mean when you were a dancer and all that.”
“I was like, ten.”
“Yeah, maybe you can finally get back in shape like your ten year old self.”
“I still can’t compare to my ten year old self…”
Lamar comes up to me and pats me on the back (with his very sweaty hand, ew). “We can’t always compare to our younger selves. You’ve become a scrawny stick, and I’ve lost the ability to feel all my emotions. It happens to everyone.”
“You’ve got to stop with the jokes. Your jokes are too powerful for me,” I say.
“Seriously, though, you should try training with the junk bots. It’s fun.”
“I had to fight something like thirty non-junk robots that time when Moonslash was trying to kill me to avenge his honor. Then I fought a billion guard robots at Blyth’s base. I’d prefer never to have to fight robots ever again in my life if I can help it.”
“You fight against robots in approximately 27.3% of your hero-related battles,” Lamar says. “It’s highly likely you’ll have to do so many times in the future.”
“I know… Ugh, don’t remind me. Hey, by the way, I guess you and your AI are doing a lot better now, if you can pull out random facts out of your ass like that.”
“It’s serving me a lot better,” Lamar says. He takes the now-too-wet-to-use towel and motions for another one. I hand it over. “I can still feel it sometimes, creeping up against my consciousness, trying to gain control at any moment when I’m not ready for it. But lately, it and I have been doing pretty well together.”
“You basically have superpowers at this point,” I say, pointing to all the scraps of junk bots littered across the ground. “What need will there be for a Morgan Harding when a Lamar Gwinnett takes charge?”
Lamar rolls his eyes. “Stop being so humble. I can increase my adrenaline and dull my pain receptors, but my body’s still just human. You’re the one with the actual superpowers.”
“Maybe. But… I still think it’s really cool what you can do. So cool that I think we should celebrate!”
“Who’s celebrating now?” a voice from behind us asks.
We turn around. A tall Black woman with poofy hair and sharp eyes approaches. She’s wearing nothing more than a thin tanktop and short shorts—I guess beating the heat means being basically naked sometimes—and for some reason has a long staff holstered to her back. And boy, the muscles on this woman.
“Oh, uh, hi,” I say.
The woman looks at Lamar. “Who’s twiggy?”
Am I THAT scrawny?
“This is my friend Morgan Harding, Lamar tells her. “I’ve known them since we were kids.” He turns to me. “And this is my friend Claudia Ingraham. She works here at the junkyard, and she’s really strong.”
“Hey, I’m stronger than I look,” I whine.
She folds her arms together. “Wanna lose five bucks in an arm-wrestling contest?”
“I could totally—”
“Let’s leave it, Morgan,” Lamar interrupts, saving this Claudia woman from utter humiliation at the hands of my superior arm strength.
“Your session about over?” Claudia asks.
She peers over at the scrap heaps and gives a suspicious look. “You ain’t gonna stay for clean up, are you?”
“Not when I’m paying ten bucks an hour,” Lamar says with a smirk.
“Fair enough.” She steps up closer to the both of us and keeps her suspicious look. “You’re a mighty interesting guy, Lamar.”
They start talking really fast about various topics related to the junk bots and fighting them and different techniques they use in combat. This is all stuff I SHOULD know about, but because I am something of an ignoramus, it turns out I can’t follow at all. My brain is rattled.
The tension between them is palpable. Are these two… Nah, no way. Wait… Maybe… No, way. I’m not being racist, am I?
I mean, they are totally hitting it off extremely well. Like, so well that I feel like I’m a third wheel. I hate being the third wheel, especially when my childhood friend Lamar Gwinnett is one of the people sidelining me. I can’t stand for this!
“Hey, isn’t it time for us to go?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” Claudia says, “what’s this I hear about a celebration?”
“We’re fixing to go out drinking!” I exclaim. “Me and Lamar are are cool like that and do cool stuff like drinking together all the time.”
Lamar sighs. “I don’t drink, Morgan. I hate it when we go drinking.”
“I don’t drink either,” Claudia says. “Hell no to empty calories.”
Well, Lamar’s reason is because the dead AI in his brain takes over when he gets drunk, I guess health is another good reason…
“I do like the wings at that bar across the street, though,” she adds.
“Sounds like a date,” I say. “Not in that way, I mean.”
“Morgan, don’t you remember the last time we went out drinking?” Lamar asks. “You cried at karaoke and said, and I quote, that it was ‘so damn embarrassing I want to drown myself.’”
My face lights up in a red hue, but I fight it as best as I can so that this Claudia woman doesn’t think lesser of me. “Ah, I was just joking. Of course I cried last time. Karina’d just left for Japan. I’ve done so much cool stuff since then, like fight a criminal radio DJ and fight a criminal obsessed with bad restaurants. So it’s all fine now.”
“If you… say so.”
“Count me out,” Claudia says. “But Morgan, maybe you can come over here some other time and fight robots with us. We’d love to have you.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“Thanks…” I sob.
Seven beers in and it only just hit me that I have work tomorrow morning. But my amazing friend Lamar got my cellular out of my pocket and texted Mr. Larkins that I’d be calling out sick. What a guy…
“What a guy… I think I love you.”
“Morgan, you’re a mess,” Lamar says. “Did you call that therapist I told you about?”
“I changed my mind. I hate you because you lecture me when I’m not even sober. What the hell…”
“Yeah, whatever. Hey, barkeep, when’s those wings coming?”
“It’s a busy night. Sorry, kid,” the bartender says with a stoic and emotionless voice befitting of all bartenders everywhere.
Lamar grumbles. “Morgan’s bawling, and I can’t even get my damn wings.”
“I’m so sorry!” I exclaim. “I was just trying to be funny. I’m always just trying to be funny. Nobody takes me seriously anyway, so why bother? Anytime I take something seriously I just end up ruining lives. Like Lucy de Blasio. God, that woman wrecked me. I could barely sleep. How does someone end up living a life like that? Will I be that way? Man, I’m such a bad hero…”
“Morgan, I have no clue what you are talking about, but it’s probably all going to be okay.”
“Karina’s gone. I let her get away and I probably ruined our entire friendship, all because of some stupid kiss.”
“Oh no, not this again.”
“She barely responds to my e-mails anymore. We tried to video call once but it didn’t work out. And now she’s probably got some hot Japanese boyfriend or girlfriend who doesn’t act like a jerk all the time so I’m not worth it anymore… You know the last time I got laid, Lamar? Do you know how long it’s been, Lamar?”
“Yes, because you told me last time you got drunk and cried at a bar,” he says.
“What a good friend…”
My vision is blurry, and I’m starting to lose it to the overwhelming forces of sleepytime.
“You’re so much better than Amy,” I mumble. “Amy never hangs out with me anymore. Of all people, I’m not good enough for Amy? What a…”
The last thing I hear is the clattering of plates as Lamar’s wings arrive.
I wake up the next morning on Lamar’s grandparents’ couch with a massive hangover. Again.
This is so damn embarrassing I want to drown myself.