Nicole was so done with her brother it wasn’t even funny. She stomped up the stairs, hitting every step with the maximum force to express how annoyed she was. If her mom hadn’t already left for work, she would have called Nicole dramatic—and said it dramatically, bathing in that classic parental brew of irony and hypocrisy.
But Nicole didn’t think she was dramatic so much as rightfully expressing the unfairness of it all. Why should she be the one to go upstairs? Yes, she’d been watching her videos on the downstairs TV since she’d rolled out of bed to walk the dog, but did Jay need the TV now, right now, right when she was so obviously still using it?
After flopping onto the comfy chair upstairs, Nicole rolled her eyes at the boxy TV facing her. She wondered why they even bothered to plug it in, seeing as how nobody used it. The upstairs TV was a relic compared with the downstairs flat-screen TV. That was the theme in this house. A few nice things they got back when her parents actually made new purchases surrounded by ancient things from the last decade, patched together by duct tape and admonitions to please be careful!
Nicole pulled out her phone, but before she could cue up her videos, the TV sputtered and a fuzzy image of a peculiar man appeared on the screen. His eyes widened and sparkled. “Would you like a brand new brother?” a voice-over boomed. “Call now!” Above his head, the words CALL NOW flashed in golden lettering. At the bottom of the screen, a phone number scrolled.
Nicole located the remote and mashed her thumb into it, but she couldn’t turn off the TV. The same image and phone number persisted on every station. Nicole hadn’t the slightest doubt this was all, somehow, her brother’s doing. An impressive trick, she had to admit, but she was not going to tolerate his messing with her.
Leaning forward, Nicole prepared to race downstairs, to tell Jay a thing or two, to let him have it as she should have done yesterday. But when her fingers brushed against her phone, a thought popped into her head. It expanded into an idea, frightful and thrilling, displacing her anger with vindication, intensifying the more she mulled it over.
Maybe I should call, Nicole thought. A brand new brother sounds perfect.
“That’s it. New and improved! Call now.”
Nicole smiled, sensing a personal connection as though this commercial spoke directly to her. She cradled her phone in her hands. A fingertip flicked across the screen without her even needing to concentrate. Her phone had long ago become an appendage, as integral as a foot or a kidney.
After Nicole entered the number, her finger hovered above the dial icon. Something held her back, but she couldn’t imagine what it could be. She might have guessed self-preservation had she any means to gauge the lurking danger. Had she any inkling her impetuous nature would fix her on a chaotic course beyond her control.
She did want a new brother. As long as he wasn’t like Jay, who always said things to upset her and never did what she wanted him to do. She thrust aside her unease and tapped the icon. Instead of a ring, Nicole heard more of a choking sound, a gasp as if someone strangled.
“Hello, Nicole. Are you ready to change your life?”
The voice on her phone was identical to the voice-over in the commercial. Nicole figured this guy must own the company or something. “Maybe,” she said. The man on the TV screen stared at her while she spoke. Nicole leaned to the left and right, and the man’s face tracked her each time. She hesitated. “How much does it cost?”
“Do you mean money? Oh, no. It won’t cost you any money. Not one cent. But there is a cost.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing for you to worry about, my dear. Nothing at all. Your satisfaction is guaranteed or your money back.”
“That seems fair. Wait, I thought you said—”
“Now, now. Don’t worry about a thing. We’ll simply replace your brother with a better one. This offer doesn’t come around every day. It is, to be candid, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The man on the TV winked but not subtly. His head dipped so low that his oversized hat nearly slid off. “Decide quickly. Supplies are running out.”
The words CALL NOW lit up in a sickly yellow, casting a jaundiced glow across the face of the eccentric man with the whimsical hat and sparkling eyes.
“Then yes! What do I have to do?”
The man lifted his head. His lips gave a twitch. The voice answered, “Nothing more, nothing more. You’ve done it! Congratulations, my dear. Call the same number if your new brother malfunctions, and I’ll send an attendant straight away.” When he disconnected, the TV flicked itself off and Nicole heard her father’s voice.
“Nic, come downstairs, please. Jay has something he wishes to say.”
When Nicole arrived, she sagged with disappointment. Her brother looked the same. Same broad chest. Same confident grin. Stupid, worthless commercial. At least it didn’t cost her any money.
“I’m sorry, Nic,” Jay said. “I only wanted to use the TV to kick you out. That was wrong of me. Please take the remote and accept my apology.”
Nicole stared open-mouthed. Jay appeared the same, his voice sounded the same, but this was not her brother. Sweet.
“Thanks,” she said.
He handed her the remote, flashed the kindest smile she had seen from him in years, and left the room. Nicole watched her videos in utter bliss. Once she was caught up, she decided to check on this new brother of hers. If he was going to be awesome, she might as well be friendlier. As she made her way upstairs, she thought about the number on her phone and doubted she would ever need to call it again.
Her brother’s door was ajar. Walking closer, she heard him chewing on something, maybe granola given all the crunching. She pushed the door open and stepped inside. Robot Jay took another bite of his phone and looked up at her. Metal and plastic bits ground together. He chewed slowly, savoring every morsel.
“Everything all right, my wonderful sister?” When she didn’t answer, he popped the rest of the device in his mouth and licked his fingers clean.
“Sure,” Nicole said, backing out of his room. “What could possibly be wrong?”