Chapter 4: Tadeo
Tadeo looked at the metal structure before him. It looked like a deformed crane. As long as it could pick up a glass of water, he’d maintain his A in Design and Technology class. He knew his classmates’ robots would be far more high-tech, complex, and developed, but he didn’t care. For the first time in three years, he just didn’t feel like competing.
Tadeo picked up the controller. “Here goes nothing,” he said. His dog, Pedro, who was sprawled out across Tadeo’s bed, suddenly lifted his head.
Nothing moved. Tadeo pressed the button again. Not even a small flinch.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Tadeo screamed, throwing the controller across the room, nearly knocking over a lamp. Pedro laid his head back down and let out a long sigh.
Tadeo’s phone started buzzing across his desk of papers. He looked down to see who it was. The text read: “Working late. Won’t be home for dinner. Daddy late too. Penny’s left-over curry in the fridge. Walk the dog. Luv, Mum.”
Tadeo felt like throwing his phone as well, but decided against it, remembering the shattered iPhone screen he had been forced to squint at for six months.
“Great,” he sighed. “Looks like it’s just you and me again, Petey.”
Pedro yawned and stretched his long black legs.
“Come on, buddy. Let’s go.”
Tadeo could use the break anyway. He’d been at this stupid thing now for two hours straight, and he still had a Geography II test to study for, but that would only take him a half hour. Just needed to review the Balkans, and he could do that while he ate dinner, now that his parents weren’t going to be home. It was the third night this week they’d both worked late. Probably for the best anyway. His mother would’ve tried to take over and configure the robot for him. “There. Easy,” she’d say with a smug look on her face.
“Well, not everyone’s a brilliant scientist like you!” He had screamed once after she had taken less than two minutes to solve the computer game Tadeo had spent weeks configuring. His mother had simply shaken her head and laughed, “Oh, Taddy. You certainly live up to your name: ‘Compassionate, but quick tempered.’”
Tadeo grabbed Pedro’s leash off the hook, shoved it around the dog’s head abruptly, and knuckled the button to open the garage door. He walked to the end of the driveway and punched in the gate code. As he watched it open slowly, he began to shiver. He pushed his sleeves over his hands and walked through the gate. Though it was cold, it felt good to be outside. If his parents had been home, they would have encouraged him to take a break sooner, anticipating his restlessness, so as to avoid a typical “Tadeo explosion.”
Whatever, Tadeo thought. It’s such a double-edge sword; they want me to relax and have fun and go to parties and yet, if I don’t get an A, the whole world ends! What do they expect? They know how competitive Thomas Jefferson is! Half the kids there don’t even know what failure looks like!
Tadeo quickened his pace, his thoughts growing angrier by the minute. Pedro pulled away from him and lifted his leg against a lamppost.
“Come on, Pedro. It’s cold,” Tadeo hissed. He knew better than to have not worn a jacket. The weather in Northern Virginia in March was always unpredictable. Not like London. You knew what you’re going to get: Rainy and cold. Tadeo had always felt soothed by such consistency. He suddenly missed his ‘hometown.’ They hadn’t been back in three years, since Tadeo had started high school. But they were supposed to visit his sister, Sophie and her husband, George, over the summer. Sophie was a big time attorney at Allen and Overy and seemed to always be busy, but she promised Tadeo that she’d take him to Oxford during his visit and show him around campus. Maybe “even take him to some of her old spots,” she’d said. Tadeo was looking forward it, but he really just wanted to see his old friends, especially Felix and Johnny, whom he'd basically grown up with until his father’s job had forced them to move to the DC area.
After finally doing his business, Pedro bounded back to the front gate, forcing Tadeo to run.
“Geez, Petey! Now you have energy?”
When they were back inside the house, Tadeo felt his phone buzz. It was his mom again: “Remember to set the alarm.” How did she know he had just walked in? Did she have some sort of nanny cam on him or something? He wouldn’t put it past her. She had become extremely paranoid lately, but for good reason. As an engineer for a well-known multinational technology company whose major markets included defense and homeland security for both the American and British governments, she had been warned to install extra security measures, due to the recent threats from anti-war activists. Tadeo should be used to it by now; when he was in primary school, a security guard had to walk him to school every day, but that was when his father worked for the Algerian Embassy in London. Now his father worked as a senior official in the State Department, and though he worked longer hours than he ever had before, at least there weren’t Islamic extremists threatening to kidnap his children.
Tadeo let out a long sigh after he set the alarm. He was dreading his project, wishing instead to heat up his housekeeper, Penny’s, curry and vedge out on the couch to watch some television. But then he pictured Zach Dresdan’s arrogant grin. He’d probably have a robot with both hands and legs, picking up eight glasses of water! Whatever, Tadeo thought. I’m just doing it for the grade anyway.
Ironically, even though Tadeo attended the best science and technology school in the nation, and in his response to the writing prompt on the application he proclaimed he planned on dedicating himself to scientific exploration, he secretly liked the humanities instead, especially literature and history. Unlike so many of his friends, he actually looked forward to reading Hamlet, The Scarlett Letter, The Great Gatsby, and Lord of the Flies. He even thought he might want to be a teacher or professor one day.
He sat down in front of the deformed robot hand and inspected the muscle wires; they all seemed to be connected properly. So, what was missing? He rubbed his forehead with the palm of his hand and heard his stomach rumble. Maybe if I ate I could concentrate better. He fixed himself a plate of curry and turned on the big screen television in the family room. He scrolled through the list of saved programs on the DVR and saw at least five “Graham Norton” episodes he had missed. Maybe I’ll just watch one and then get back to work, he thought. Three episodes later, he decided to watch the remaining two while glancing over his index cards on the Balkans.
By 9:30, Tadeo felt his eyelids get heavy. He cleaned his dishes and went back to his room. Just as he was getting into bed, he heard the rumbling of the garage door. Shortly thereafter, he heard someone disarm the alarm and drop keys into a dish. His dad.
Tadeo shut his light off quickly. “Stop hogging the bed, Pedro. Move over,” he said. Pedro growled and reluctantly got off the bed to find more room on the floor. “Fine. Be that way.”
He heard his father’s footsteps on the stairs and could tell his father was tired just by the way he walked. He stopped outside Tadeo’s door. Tadeo tried to remain as quiet as possible. After a minute or so, his father walked on. Tadeo let out a sigh and Pedro echoed.
He loved his dad. He did. It was just…well, they just didn’t have much to say to one another. They never had. Maybe it was because his dad had Tadeo when he was 50. Or maybe it was because Tadeo connected more with his mother’s black British heritage, and not enough with his father’s Algerian Jewish heritage, unlike his half-sisters who were 100% Algerian. Whatever it was, the fact remained: the longest conversation he ever had with his dad was when Tadeo’s half-sister, Sarah, gave birth to the first grandchild; they sat outside the delivery room, while his dad recounted the day Tadeo was born. He wished for more conversations like that, but inevitably it always came down to an awkward silence between him and his dad.
Sleep came easily to Tadeo that evening, so much so that he woke up before his alarm. He wanted to get to school early to get help from his friend, Nick, who would probably be more than happy to fix Tadeo’s robot.
Tadeo showered quickly, grabbed his robot and bag, and headed out to the garage. He picked up a banana from the bowl of fruit on the kitchen island and noticed an empty wine glass sitting in the sink. His mom’s bag was sitting on the counter, her badge right beside it. He wondered what time she had finally come home.
It was barely 7:00AM when Tadeo drove out of his driveway and onto the George Washington Parkway. He looked forward to his morning drive—the sun rising up over the glassy Potomac River. Little to no cars on the road. His Pandora station set to The Boxer Rebellion.
He reached the interstate and headed west, noticing the line of cars already starting to pile up in the opposite direction, making their way into DC. Tadeo was lucky he didn’t have to endure the notorious Beltway gridlock. With traffic it would probably take him over an hour to get to school, but thankfully it only took him 35 minutes. He could’ve gone to West Potomac High School, which was much closer to his house, or even one of the private schools, but everyone at the State department told his father that TJ High was the best. It had been ranked #1 in the nation for several years, and had only dropped to #4 in the last year, for reasons still unknown. Most of the students there had parents who worked in some facet of the government—CIA, FBI, State Department, Congress, the Courts. It was like a breeding ground for future government officials. Even so, Tadeo liked his school, especially since it wasn’t much different from The City of London School, an all boys school he had attended until he was 13. Both schools were progressive and allowed the students to have a great deal of ownership over their education, which is something his mother continually encouraged all throughout Tadeo’s childhood.
Tadeo parked his car in the usual spot and walked to the front doors. Though he was anxious about his D&T robot project, he always felt a sense a calm when he walked into his school. Oddly, despite the constant competitive spirit amongst his classmates, it was one of the few places where he felt accepted. Like he was a part of a family, something he had always yearned for as a somewhat only child, since his half-sisters were so much older than he.
He went right to the computer lab, knowing Nick would already be hard at work programming something. Nick was known for his amazing “code-breaking expertise,” but he had taken a hiatus, due to a recent attempt to hack into a local news station’s website that ended up getting several people fired. Officials were still searching for the suspect, and to Tadeo’s knowledge, had no idea it was a mere sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia.
“Hey, Nick. What’s up?” Tadeo asked, throwing his bag on the chair beside Nick.
“Nothing. Just in my millionth hour of debugging. I would’ve finished it last night, but I stayed up ‘til 3 playing Warcraft. Dude, watch where you throw that thing. Mr. Miyagi will be none too thrilled,” Nick said, gesturing to the standing robot next to him without moving his eyes from the computer screen.
Tadeo rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that’s just what I need your help with. I’ve got D&T first block and this ridiculous robot hand won’t move.”
“First of all, easy with the insults, or I will sick Mr. Miyagi on you. Second, hand over the controller.”
Tadeo reached in his bag for the controller and gave it to Nick, who snapped it open.
“Yup, that’s what I thought; your light sensor isn’t connected to your drive motor output. Simple freshman mistake,” Nick said, maneuvering wires.
Anyone besides Nick, and Tadeo would’ve been returned the condescension, but Nick was a bit of a loner at school. Though only a sophomore, he was already even too smart for some of the so-called TJ ‘geniuses,’ a group of senior boys who had caught the attention of Bill Gates during a recent science-technology competition. So, Tadeo tried to hang out with Nick whenever he could, even when he didn’t need extra help with robots or computer programming.
“All set. Should work now,” Nick finished, closing the controller. Tadeo placed the robot hand on a table, pushed the green button, and manipulated the metal hand perfectly.
“Yeah, no problem,” Nick replied and returned his eyes to the computer screen with deep consternation.
Tadeo patted Nick on the shoulder and left the computer lab. The hallways were now starting to fill up with students, many of whom were sprawled out on the floors, leaning up against their lockers laughing and talking. Girls grinned as Tadeo passed by. Boys fist bumped and lifted their chins. Tadeo smiled pleasantly at every person and continued to walk to his first block class, completely unaware of his popularity. The girls adored his British accent and his dark, mysterious features mixed with boyish charm, while the boys tried to emulate his quick sarcasm and unassuming swagger.
As he was about to step into the Design and Technology classroom, he saw his English teacher coming out of the teacher’s lounge. She walked towards him with a coffee mug in one hand and a book in another.
“Good morning, Tadeo,” she said with a big smile.
“Hi, Ms. Watkins.”
“I’m glad I saw you.”
Tadeo suddenly felt his palms sweat. He could never understand why he got this way around her. She had to be his sister’s age—older even. Nonetheless, he noticed his right hand starting to twitch, and he moved his left hand over it, hoping she hadn’t noticed.
“I have a book I thought you might like,” she said still smiling.
“I’m sorry?” Tadeo tried to divert his eyes from hers.
“Well, since you finished The Kite Runner so quickly, I thought you might want to read Khaled Hosseini’s second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns. It’s just as good, if not better. Different story of course.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure…sure…that’d be great. Thanks.”
And just as he spoke, the world before him vanished. He squeezed his eyes shut and as soon as he opened them, he saw it: A line of people waiting to meet Ms. Watkins. Kids dressed in weird outfits holding books with her name on them. She was sitting at a long table, signing her name to the inside cover of each child’s book. Posing and taking pictures with some children, making sure everyone got an autograph.
Tadeo felt his entire body go numb. He squinted again and opened his eyes wide. His vision was blurry. Like clouds of smoke had suddenly billowed into the building. He heard heavy breaths; someone was gasping for air.
“Tadeo?” Ms. Watkins was holding the book out, waiting for him to take it. She had her other hand on his arm. If she let go, Tadeo was positive he’d fall. He suddenly felt immobile. As hard as he tried, the muscles in his arms refused to move. Like they weren’t hearing the signal from his brain. Like his stupid robot.
“Tadeo?” she said again, this time with a slight tilt of her head and a frown. If he could just bloody breathe. For God’s sake, breathe, Tadeo. Speak. Stop looking like such an idiot!
“Uh. Sorry. Yeah. Thanks for the book.” He grabbed the book and rushed inside the classroom He looked back; Ms. Watkins had the same tilted head and frown, like a puppy who was trying to understand an odd noise. He thought about going back outside and explaining, but what would he say? That he had just envisioned her at a book signing like she was JK Rowling or something? No, he couldn’t do that. That was out of the question. She’d look at him like he was crazy. Maybe he was. Is this what happens to smart people? Like that guy in A Beautiful Mind. Great, now I’m schizophrenic. It’s not enough that I have anxiety and am hot-tempered, but crazy too!
He sat down heavily and let his bag fall off his shoulder onto the ground. He heard something smack against the linoleum floor. Crap, he thought. He opened the zipper slowly, afraid of what he might find. The controller had cracked, right down the middle. He placed the mechanical hand on his desk. Please work. Please work. He pressed the button and moved the joystick. The hand jolted and then stopped. Tadeo sighed and put his head down.
“Hey, Tad. Looks like you got quite the mechanism there,” he heard a voice say. He didn’t even need to look up.
“Get lost, Zach.”
“Whatever, man. It’s nothing to cry over. I’m sure Harvard will understand,” Zach said, punching Tadeo’s shoulder and taking a seat behind him.
Just as Tadeo was about to turn around and throw Zach’s robot across the room, Mr. Stevens entered the room.
“You got lucky this time,” Tadeo said under his breath, turning his head slightly so Zach heard his threat.
Zach picked up his robot and held it against his chest. Tadeo suddenly felt bile in his throat, but it wasn’t his anger that made him feel this way. He could care less about Zach Dresdan or Harvard or his D&T grade. All of that didn’t matter when the only thing he could think about was the images he had seen only moments before. How the world closed in on him. Got silent and very narrow. But then there was such clarity. As if everything he saw was actually happening. So exact and precise. Nothing like the dreams he had at night that often left him confused. No. This was different. This felt real.
It could have been an anxiety attack. That would explain the breathing and the numbness in his arms. But the hallucination? What was that? And why Ms. Watkins of all people? Sure, she was his favorite teacher and sure, she always brought him new books to read, encouraging his secret passion for literature. And maybe he thought she was sweet and somewhat pretty and kind of interesting. But in a stupid schoolboy crush kind of way. Nothing more.
Maybe it was getting to him--the schoolwork, exams, grades. All the pressure. Maybe it was all too much. It had been a really long time since he had just chilled and done nothing. Thank God spring break was only two weeks away.
Yes, that must be it. Just overworked and exhausted. And yet, Tadeo was used to the workload. It had been this way for as long as he could remember, and he’d never experienced something like this before. Fatigue, yes. But visions as clear as day that he even considered telling Ms. Watkins about them?
“Tad, your up!” Mr. Stevens yelled from the back of the classroom.
Tadeo sighed forcefully and dropped is shoulders. He could feel his classmates’ eyes on him as he picked up his robot and controller and walked to the front of the room. He eyed the glass of water his other classmates had been using to demonstrate their robots. All it had to do was pick the glass up and put it back down. Simple enough.
He placed the robot hand down on the table, letting his hand linger on the mechanical thumb.
“Here goes nothing,” he whispered.