Her adoptive parents always said that Lili was a special girl, and on her fourth birthday they bought her a special toy. The box was quite heavy and half as large as she was, and when she tore open the wrapping, the cardboard came to life with animations, a cartoon bear speaking in a cartoon voice. “Hi there!” he said. “Are you Lili?”
“How does it know my name?” she said to her mother, amazed.
“It’s nanotech, baby. And we told the company when we bought it. Go ahead, answer. What’s your name?”
“Hi, Lili!” said the cartoon. “Are you ready to meet Forever Friendly Freddy?”
There was no shoddy tape to deal with; instead part of the box’s front opened by itself, like a door on a hinge, and inside stood a teddy bear. He was all white, about eighteen inches high, with a friendly little smile on his face, and his eyes were a deep and shining black. But as he stepped out of the box, he tripped on its lip and fell comically, rolling end over end until he plopped on his butt with his stubby legs in front of him, shaking his head in surprise. The whole family laughed, except for her brother Tom, who was regarding the bear with an expression of intense resentment, much the same look he often directed at Lili.
The bear got up and brushed himself off, smiling ruefully. “I’ve got to be more careful.” He looked up at his new owner and his smile deepened. “Are you Lili?”
Lili looked uncertainly at her mom, who nodded, and Lili again replied, “Yes.”
The bear bowed and extended his furry paw. “I’m Forever Friendly Freddy, and I’m so excited to meet you!” Hesitantly, Lili shook his paw, and found his fur even softer than it looked, softer than a cat’s, even (and they couldn’t have cats, because Tom and her mom were both allergic). She reached out and stroked his body by his arm, and he giggled.
“Why does Lili get an AI toy?” Tom scowled. “It’s not fair.”
“It’s her birthday,” Dad said. “And if you recall, we bought you a bicycle and four games for your birthday, just two months ago.”
“Lili, what’s your favorite color?” asked Freddy.
“Purple!” She had only just sort of discovered purple, which her mother had told her was the color of kings and queens.
In a second, Freddy’s fur changed color to a beautiful bright lavender. “Like this?”
Lili laughed and swept Freddy up in her arms, burying her face in his so-soft shoulder while he giggled and exclaimed.
Freddy could do lots and lots of things. He seemed to know just about every game there was, and he could tell wonderful stories and act them out with her other toys, holding her little plastic dolls and action figures in his furry paws and making funny voices. He could do all kinds of tricks, too, walking on his hands, doing somersaults and cartwheels and hilarious dances. If she wanted to know something, he would tell her; and if she wanted to learn about something, he always had a fun way to explain it.
He was like the best friend she’d always wanted. That was supposed to be Tom, but although Tom was nominally her brother, he was also a bully. When her parents weren’t looking, he would pinch her, or hide her toys and act like she had just lost them.
Tom was eight, and Mark and Lorena Waterson had adopted him at around the same age as Lili was now. They liked to talk about how skinny he had been, and how all he’d wanted to do when they first got him was eat. Now he was kind of chubby, though.
Tom and Lili fought a lot, which wasn’t fair because Tom was way bigger. The day after her birthday he came outside to the back yard where she was playing and said, “Let me play with Freddy.”
She and Freddy had been arranging the fallen leaves in the yard according to color, making beautiful patterns, which the toy bear had shown her how to do. “We’re busy,” she said simply.
Tom reached down, grabbed a handful of the leaves she had been so-carefully arranging, and scattered them all around. “Let me play with him!”
“Why don’t we all play a game together?” Freddy suggested.
“He’s my toy,” Lili said. “Dad said. You have your bike and I have Freddy.”
“I know a lot of games you can play with three people,” repeated the bear.
But Tom grabbed Freddy’s arm and picked him up and started walking away. “I’ll bring him back.”
“I think I better stay with Lili,” Freddy said.
“Just for a while,” Tommy insisted.
“Tommy, I was given to Lili. I’m afraid I can’t play with you without Lili.” And with that Freddy went all stiff, as dead and unmoving as a regular old teddy bear.
Tom felt the difference and looked down in displeasure at the toy. He raised it up to arm level and shook it. “Hey! Wake up!” For a minute he kept trying to get the bear to come back to life, but to no avail; and Freddy didn’t have any buttons or switches you could push.
Finally he turned back to Lili and shoved the bear at her. “Make him wake up.”
“Uh-uh. He’s my toy. Dad said so.”
Frustrated, Tom reached out and pinched her, hard. “Ow!”
“Make him wake up!”
He pinched her again, and then she ran into the house, leaving poor Freddy lying there in the yard.
When she told her mother, Mom came outside with her. “Did you pinch Lili?”
“No,” said Tom. “She’s just saying that because Freddy wanted to play with me, and she didn’t like it.”
“Freddy, wake up,” Mom commanded. Freddy promptly did, coming to his feet with his hands in front of him. “Freddy, can you tell me what happened?”
“I can show you on your phone, Mrs. Waterson.” Mom got out her handheld and looked at it, squatting down so the kids could see too. And there on the phone was a video of the whole thing, recorded from Freddy’s point of view. When it got to Tom pinching his sister, Mom’s face darkened. “Tom, come inside. We’re going to have a talk.”
Satisfied, Lili took Freddy’s paw and ran with him over to the playhouse, ignoring Tom’s look of venom.
Of course she couldn’t be with Freddy all the time, much as she tried. Like when she went swimming with Petra, she had to leave him at home. “Can’t he swim too?” she asked.
Her father laughed. “I don’t think so, baby. I think he’d sink.”
When she got back, Freddy wasn’t where she’d left him, on her bed. “I can’t find Freddy,” she told her mom, who was sitting at her desk sorting papers.
“Where’d you leave him last?”
“He was on my bed. But he’s not there now.”
“I’m sure he’s around somewhere.”
First she went to Tom’s room, Tom having come home from school while she was out with her friend. “Do you have Freddy?”
Tom was playing one his games on his tablet. He didn’t look at her. “No. Why would I have your stupid bear?”
“Freddy’s not stupid. Freddy’s very smart.”
“Not that smart.”
Lili stuck her tongue out at him and ran off. But Freddy wasn’t in the playroom, or either bathroom, or her parent’s room, or anywhere she could see in a closet. Finally she went into the back yard. There at last she found him, way over in the corner, lying face down under the bushes. But when she turned him over, she started crying. Someone had torn out his eyes.
Of course they all knew it was Tom, but this time the video didn’t actually show anything. Tom had been very clever and had crept up on Teddy from behind, then put something over Freddy’s head. He must have used a screwdriver or something, pressing right through the blindfold, to pry out the eyes, which now were missing. But who else could it be?
Her parents talked very seriously to him as he sat with arms crossed and head lowered. “I didn’t do it,” he kept maintaining, though he obviously had.
As for Freddy, her dad didn’t seem too concerned. “He’s supposed to be self-repairing anyway. We’ll just plug him in tonight and see what happens.” So that’s what they did, setting Freddy on the shelf next to one of her plastic I Love Unicorns. Freddy was making a slight humming sound that put her right to sleep.
When she woke up, the first thing she saw was that Freddy was just like new! His black eyes were sparkling at her and he smiled at her inquisitively. “Freddy, you’re better!”
“I sure am!” he replied. “I feel like a million bucks! Do you want to play a game?”
She didn’t, not right now, but she sure cuddled him hard. And if anything, he seemed bigger and fluffier than ever. She didn’t even notice, then, that the unicorn was missing.
She kind of suspected Tom had stolen it, too, though again he was full of denials, and this time her parents seemed disinclined to pursue it. “You do lose your toys all the time, Lili. It’s not always Tom.” But they all felt the undercurrent of suspicion.
Tom got into trouble a lot. Her parents said it was because when he was four, his parents in Eritrea had just left him outside a police station and never come back, which made him insecure. Lili’s parents were from Ethiopia, which was like really close to Eritrea but with more restaurants, and although they hadn’t just left her somewhere, they had given her away. But she’d only been two years old, and she didn’t really even remember it.
Lili tried to keep her distance from her brother, sensing his resentment, but it was hard to keep that up. One day they were playing again in the backyard, on the playset. Along with a swing and some monkey bars, the playset had a metal slide, and her and Tom were sliding down it, one after the other, racing each other in circles while Freddy stood at the bottom and cheered them on. Her parents had started using Freddy as sort of a babysitter; not that they would leave the kids alone in the house, but they definitely checked up on them less frequently.
Finally Lili paused at the top, forcing Tom to stop behind her. “Come on!” he cried. He tried getting past her, but she just giggled at her game and locked her hands on the railing on either side.
Then, without warning, Tom shoved her, hard, from the back. She went flying, hands out in front, and struck the bottom of the slide and tumbled onto the grass. Once she stopped, she sat there, half stunned.
“Lili, are you okay?” asked Freddy. She just started bawling.
Seeing her anxiety, and perhaps the way she was curled around her wrist, Freddy started running on his stubby legs for the house, presumably to get her mom. But Tom, who had slid right down the slide after pushing her, had longer legs than the little toy bear, and in a few steps swept Freddy up in his arms. Then he raced over to the fence, where the neighbors’ German shepherd, Thunder, was barking at the commotion. Ignoring Lili’s cries, Tom threw the bear over and turned back with a scornful look.
“She slipped,” was all he would say when Mom came outside to see what all the hubbub was about.
“I didn’t slip,” Lili cried. “He pushed me.”
“I did not!”
“Honey, show me your arm.” Mom examined it. “Does it hurt? Move it like this.” Lili tried, but it hurt too bad.
The arm wasn’t broken, but Lili’s wrist was sprained, and she went home from the hospital with it wrapped in bandages. Freddy was in far worse shape. Late in the afternoon Mom went to the neighbors’ house and told them what had happened. When she came back holding the bear, Lili cried some more. Perhaps disliking the robot’s behavior, Thunder had half torn Freddy apart. His legs were all shredded and one of his arms was simply missing (they thought maybe Thunder had buried it). Her dad took a look, pursed his lips and said it was too bad.
That night they again plugged in Freddy’s ragged remains on her shelf. “Worth a shot,” Dad observed. At first, next to Freddy, Lili placed Betty Better Believe Her, but remembering her still-missing unicorn, she replaced Betty with Captain Caterwaul, who looked like an armored warrior with a lion’s head, whom she’d never liked much. She closed her eyes to the sound of Freddy humming happily to himself.
Even Dad was amazed to see Freddy the next day, good as new, bright black eyes shining and chipper. “It’s incredible,” he murmured. “I had no idea the technology had come so far.” And in fact Freddy looked bigger and better than ever. He must have been almost two feet tall. As for Captain Caterwaul, well, nobody noticed his absence.
With Freddy functional again, her parents also reviewed his video recording; and what they saw made them look very serious indeed. Tom spent all that day grounded in his room, without even a tablet to console him, while Lili had her run of the house.
Tom also had to go to special counseling sessions. Lili went to one with him, where he had to apologize to her, and they talked about why he might resent his sister. It didn’t seem to occur to them that the sessions might make him resent her even more. Still, things seemed to have settled down, for a few weeks, and Lili clung to her bear harder than ever, bandages or no.
There came an afternoon they all went to the zoo. They walked around for quite a while, and since Lili was kind of tired, she let Freddi walk around too. Unfortunately she’d forgotten to plug him in the night before, and even before they got to the car his batteries ran out, and her dad ended up putting Freddy in his backpack, though Freddy’s head stuck out the top. “People are going to think I’m stealing the exhibits,” Dad joked.
From there they went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner, and by the time they got home she was so tired that she could barely keep her head up. “Come on, sleepyhead,” her dad said, picking her up, but she didn’t even remember that, nor did she remember exactly where she’d left the now-lifeless Freddy. But the next morning, he was gone.
She looked and looked. “Did you maybe leave him at the restaurant?” Mom asked. They called, but no dice. “Someone might have nicked him,” said Dad. “It’s an expensive toy, and I hear there’s way to reset the programming.”
“I think Tom took him,” Lili said, lip trembling.
“I did not!” Tom said, coming off the couch.
Their parents considered them both, and then they had Lili go downstairs while they questioned her brother. But in the end there was nothing more to say. Freddy was gone, and Tom said he hadn’t done it, and there was no evidence that he had, despite her accusations. But she saw how worried her parents looked.
It wasn’t until weeks later, when she was playing in the rock garden in the side yard (really just a patch of rocks and weeds), when she spied something, a tiny hint of lavender among the nettles. She picked it up, felt it between her fingers, how soft it was.
With that, in a fury, she began moving rocks, straining at their weight, and quickly enough she found some that didn’t seem as hard to move as the others: and there, thoroughly crushed and battered, was Freddy’s body.
It wasn’t even all of Freddy. He had no arms or legs or even head, and even his round body was dented and cut. She wondered what Tom had used to destroy the bear: the hatchet from the garage, maybe. She imagined him seeing the bear forgotten in the living room, motionless; saw him getting up late in the night and slipping outside with her robotic friend. Saw him hacking and pounding away in the dirt, face contorted with anger. She held that image close, remembering Tom pushing her, wondering what else he might do.
So she didn’t tell anyone about finding Freddy, but brought him inside and hid him under her bed. Then late, late in the night, when everything had been quiet for a long, long time, she got out of bed and found the cable they used for charging her toy.
Oh so quietly she crept down the hall. Tom slept with his door open, just as she did. He was on his side, drool running down his chin. Barely breathing, she plugged in the cord to the outlet next to the bedstand, where a humidifier was running too.
Then she plugged the other end into what was left of Freddy. Immediately she heard that faint hum, and was gratified. She looked at Tom, but he was dead to the world. Gently as could be, she placed the bear’s broken torso right next to him on the bed.
The next morning she was woken by her mother’s terrified voice, yelling for Dad. Lili jumped out of bed and was just behind her dad in reaching Tom’s room. “Mark, where is he? Where’s Tom? And what is this?“
Lili slipped from behind her father’s legs. She was sorry to have upset her parents. But her heart grew large when she saw Freddy sitting on the bed, his black eyes bright, fur sleekly shining, bigger and better than ever: four feet tall and smiling a happy, happy smile.