Home Archive Shop About us
©2023 Dispatches Media
The Kid
Jeff Hewitt
December 4, 2020
Illustration by Angie Samblotte

“You really think you’re gonna replace me with one of those goddamn things?”

Abe just smiled. Smug bastard.

I’ve worked this gig thirty years, and I know for a fact that only a handful of people left in Hollywood can run the projector. And half of them were fired from here already; I remember one guy was so perpetually stoned he burned a hole through an archival print of Ben-Hur. I don’t know about the rest, but over the years they were all let go. Probably asked for raises or benefits or days off or something.

And now they want to replace me. The last projectionist in the building. I guess we’re all let go eventually. Cost of living versus cost of doing business.

It’s not like I’m much of an expense. The Cinerama Dome only runs so many print shows. Maybe fifteen screenings a month. On a good month.

I’m only here because I can keep the Kinoton running for less than a contractor. That old mechanical monster’s a master class in jury-rigging. But both of us are one breakdown from the scrapheap.

And all this right before October, when we roll out the reels for the Dome’s retro horror festival. Horrorama: Blood, Sweat, and Film. All analog, all month. Always brings in good crowds.

I make most of my money for the year in October.

Now they’re trying to pawn it off to a goddamn drone.

Abe snaked his way through a crack in the projection booth’s door. I could smell the greasy little puke’s cologne over the must and decades of bad paint jobs.


I glanced over, saw the ankles of that stupid blue and red jumpsuit the admins wear, then those ten-grand specs perched on his glossy regen’d face. Privileged dork.

“Yeah, what?” Hunched over, chin tucked into my coveralls, stubble poking my chest as I tested the intermittent sprocket wheel.

Damn thing keeps nicking perfs. And those archivist hoarders we rent the prints from check every square micron of film when it goes back. Been having a problem with the automatic stop too.

“I thought you’d like to meet your new protégé.”

My ears flushed, red-hot. Funny how you never notice your ears until moments like these. I straightened out, pushing off my creaking knees.

Abe had the door propped with one sickly white, baby smooth hand. He waved the thing in with the other.

“Come on, don’t be shy.”

And instead of what I’d been expecting—a steel stick figure with articulators where its hands should be—in walked a pockmarked kid with tousled, dirty blonde hair. Short. Maybe five six. Couldn’t be a day over sixteen.

The kid shuffled in next to Abe, arms glued to his sides. He fiddled with the belt loops on his oversized uniform, green eyes looking nervous as can be.

“Crane, meet Andy.”

I couldn’t believe how real the kid looked. Hard not to call it a kid. It was the first time I’d seen a realistic one up close. They only came back into production recently, after the troubles with those early models.

And it wasn’t just the cosmetics of the thing. It looked uncomfortable. Unsure of itself. Intimidated, even. It fidgeted, rolling a thumb over its fingertips.

All of that, programmed.

Why bother programming a sixteen-year-old virgin from the turn of the century?


Glassy, blinking eyes looked up at me.

“You ever worked on one of these things before?” I cocked my head back to the Kinoton. The lamp was off. Fans hummed within the console.

The kid’s eyes darted to the projector’s housing, looking at the flat metal siding like it might attack him. He shook his head, the rest of his body frozen stiff.

Its head. Its body.


It shook its head again, lips clamped, struggling with fake nerves. Then finally:


Not what I expected when they told me I’d be getting a drone “assistant.”

“How are you supposed to run the projector then?”

“Well…” Voice cracking the way the teenager’s it was modeled on would. “You’re supposed to teach me, I think.”

Great. It’s a smartass too.

“Got it. Guessing you’re programmed to be a fast learner?”

The kid nodded.

“The information is in here.” It tapped the side of its head. “It just needs to be activated.”

It found something invisible to inspect between its shoes. More fidgeting. Criminy.

“Why don’t you just know it all out of the box?”

It winced.

“…Or whatever it is you came out of.”

It looked up to me, eyes watery.

“For authenticity.”

The cafeteria machines were down at the open-air place off Selma. A few raggedy members of the voucher crowd stood under the franchise holos, still lit-up, staring at server avatars stuck in idle animations.

My stomach grumbled. Then I did.

I checked my watch. Twenty-two minutes left in my break. No messages. Ninety-nine degrees. Blood pressure above normal. An ad for the orange soap I use projected itself over the display.

Why do marketing algorithms always try to sell me things I already have subscriptions for?

Maybe they know I’ve been thinking about cancelling.

But I can’t afford the ad-free model. Not on my erratic hourly. I checked again, compulsively, tail end of the tangerine advertisement fading away.

Twenty-one minutes.

Officially, Cinerama gives hourlies flexible breaks. But the tracking system reports anything over thirty minutes to Abe. Software snitch.

I went up Cahuenga, passing the tourists, the locals, the celebrities I wouldn’t recognize, the typical Hollywood freakshows. All of them staring off at nothing, some looking borderline catatonic, others muttering to people who weren’t there, or to computers pretending to be people.

A group of fifty-odd cyclists circled in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. A few had holos set up on their bikes, casting things like “GREEN MEANIES” and “GRANDFATHERS MUST DIE”, images of smashed-up lowriders rotating below the text.

I smoothed my mustache. Almost completely grey now.

A legacy-permitted Jeep sat on the other side of Cahuenga, honking away. The blast of its horn mixed with the music pumping from the protestor’s bikes. A couple confused AZ delivery units tried to enter the intersection, only to stutter and reverse. A refrigerated truck train idled nearby, apparently programmed with more patience than the AZ units. And the guy driving the Jeep.

I moved on, heading for the closet-sized Cactus Taqueria outpost on the Boulevard. I’d asked the kid if it wanted anything, but it said it didn’t eat. Fine by me, only then wondering if it could pay me back.

Were they paying him?

Is he an employee, or property? He, or it?

I guess that’s the measure.

What the kid said had been bothering me. The authenticity thing. It just struck me how well it fits with the racks of old prints, the outdated machines I keep updating with new parts.

There’s a full-blown authenticity fetish these days. That’s what the festival’s all about: letting people pretend they’re in an old grindhouse theater, reliving a time no one’s around to remember. That’s why the kid—the android—is the way it is. Designed for nostalgia. One hundred percent artificial authenticity.

And it doesn’t seem happy about it. Or is that just the teenage programming?

Approaching Cactus, the smell of hot grease seeped from the barely washed griddle inside. A holo of my normal order came up on the window’s plastic screen. Burrito California con carnitas. Or whatever they’re selling as pork.

“Yeah.” I nodded.

The cooks got to work. More authenticity: Cactus still uses people. They claim the machines don’t know how to wrap a burrito. I figure it’s a gimmick.

A couple minutes later a wrapper slapped down on the service counter. Black sharpie scribbles: CAR BUR. I grabbed it and headed for the Dome, still mulling what the kid said.

“Alright, what are these?” I pointed to the big, flat, aluminum discs next to the console.


It was a fast learner.

Reel cases, flats, and cans sat stacked on the table behind the platters. Dummy prints. In this case, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. A horror in its own right.

“So what we need to do is splice all seven reels, beginning to end, then mount that mega-reel on the input platter.”

The kid nodded as I walked through the motions, film spooling from one winder to the next, rhythmically interrupted by the metallic punch of the splicer. Then we switched, and I watched it do the next reel in less time than I could, catching a split perf I probably would have missed.

A very fast learner.

Maybe I am outdated.

After we’d mounted the full picture reel, I removed the ring and pointed to the center of the platter.

“Now, you take the dummy leader,” I flicked the clear, loose strip, “and loop it through this thing right here.”

It moved closer, inspecting the series of rollers all those concentric rings of film led to.

“This is the brain.” I grabbed the leader and wove it through the rollers. “Helps control tension, and feeds film throughout the movie. Watch.”

I pulled the rest of the leader to the projector, then through to the takeup ring, leaving a lot of slack.

“Is there a chip that manages the brain?” It hovered over the input platter, still staring.

“No. It’s just rollers and axles. Manages itself.”

“Doesn’t seem very smart for something called a ‘brain.’”

“Yeah? Well not everyone’s as smart as you, kid.”

It smiled. Didn’t mean it as a compliment.

I tucked the clear strip into the takeup ring and returned to the projector. Flush with the aperture, the worn metal gate stood propped, ready to be threaded. I glanced back to the kid.

“You wanna try this time?”

“You wanna try this time?”

It. It nodded.

I stepped aside as it pulled an apple box over, watching it guide the leader through rollers and sprocket wheels and tension levers, eyebrows scrunched in concentration. The movements were smooth. Like it had been doing this for years. Like I was watching my own hands fix the loops.

I thought back to my first time. The sweaty palms. The old man smelling of cigarettes and mold looming over me, barking every time I messed up.

Then the kid snapped the pressure plate into place, smiling at its heavy mechanical click. It adjusted the lenses and punched the film advance.

Perfect. Like it was made for this. But I couldn’t say that:

“Not so fast, kid.” I killed the lamp.

The smile faded from its face.

“Did I miss something?”

Christ. Kid’s way too eager to please.

“Yes. I mean, no, that was good, but you were rubbing your fingers over the frames.” Had to find something. “Not a big deal with the leader, but if you have to fix something on the fly, you could scratch the image, or get your greasy little fingerprints all over it.”

“Well, I—”

“Same for the lamp. If you get any oil on the glass, you could shorten its lifespan. They burn out eventually, but you don’t want that to happen any more than necessary, because they’re expensive as hell, and the only place that still makes them is this machine shop in Bavaria.”

I was rambling. I took my cheaters off and kneaded the bridge of my nose.

“What were you saying?”

“Just that,” he held out his hand, “my skin doesn’t produce oil. And I don’t leave fingerprints.”

I stared at the smooth, rosy palms. The featureless fingertips.

“Oh. Well—”

A knock at the door interrupted us. Abe poked his baby-skin face into the booth, big fake teeth looking like they might blind someone in direct sunlight.

“How’s everything going in here?” Followed by a manager’s smile.

I wanted to kick the door closed on his neck, sure he was getting his rocks off watching me train my replacement.

“Fine. You need something?”

The kid went back in his shell, arms at his sides, examining his feet.

“Yes. Andy?”

I could have sworn the kid flinched.

“Could you come down to my office? I’ll let you two finish up whatever you’re going over.”

He slithered back out the door. Kid looked like he was about to piss himself.

“Don’t worry, kid. He’s like that with everybody.”

The Bangladeshis were making a racket again. Second night in a row of drumming and quarter tonal singing. They milled about between the market stalls set up in the school’s landing. Their sequined saris (and whatever you call the things the men wear) glittered under the floodlights.

This part of town was called Little Armenia when I was kid. But it wasn’t, really. Glendale was. Now it’s Little Dhaka, full of families escaping the slow flood, celebrating some festival that meant nothing to me.

The company that owns this building replaced the windows a couple years ago. Said they were soundproofing.

Doesn’t sound like it.

I forced myself to stop staring. A cast played up on my wall, something recommended after The Ohio Valley Film Review. Teenagers screwing around with a quad in a dry cornfield. Mindless programming. One of them had wispy blonde hair. Deep dimples.

Reminded me of the kid.

I turned it off, staring at my blank white wall, listening to the muted festivities outside. I took a puff off my Ember, yawned, and crumpled up the wrapper from my leftovers. My upstairs neighbor stomped around.

I sighed. Too old for this one-bed. I walked to the kitchen, threw the wrapper in the brown compression can, and told the lights to turn off.

I got into work early, enjoying the morning silence in the cavernous entrance hall. None of the one-sheets had been turned on yet, leaving everything silver, white, and polished wood veneer. An LED marquee used to hang in the middle of the atrium, back before a Chinese company bought Arclight and upgraded everything to holos. Half the building’s screens got converted to experia pits.

The company changed hands a couple more times, eventually becoming American again. Whatever that means.

Hazy eastern light played over the Dome’s off-white geodesics as I walked through the courtyard. Fake blood spatter had been put up overnight. When the holos turned on there would be ghosts floating around, appearing and disappearing, lurking shadows always just out of view.

The entry doors recognized me and wheezed open. Some of the limited-edition programs had been dropped off, sitting there in a pile near the concession stand. I scooped one up, bending its satin binding, watching the lobby’s dimmed lights slide over the cover art. Kaiju-sized Jason’s duked it out, stomping their way through the Hills. The Dome and a few other buildings poked up at odd angles down on Sunset.

Might be able to get something for this on SellBy. Or it could become another piece of memorabilia cluttering my apartment.

I wandered the interior loop, flipping through the silky, weighted pages. The bill read like a family tree of horror.

There were the progenitors: Nosferatu, The Man Who Laughs, Mystery of the Wax Museum; a Universal Monsters night with Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon; up through the last-century devil spawn of The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby.

Pretty typical. But from there, the list got creative:

They had a weekend of two-for-one holiday movies with Black Christmas, Gremlins, Easter Mass, My Bloody Valentine, Winter Break, and a special combined director’s cut of Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

Mondays were “Hell” Night: Drag Me to Hell, Hellraiser numbers one through whatever, The Legend of Hell House, HELLen Keller: Resurrection, and, of course, West Hellywood (with a sing-along at the end).

I skimmed the subgenres. Sci-fi horror warped by with Alien, Beta Test, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Phantom Station, Re-Animator, Orbital Decay, The Blob, The Faculty, The Rift, and The Thing.

I hit October 18th. Proxima Rising—smack in the middle of sci-fi week. Smiling, I closed the program, curling it in one hand.

Sometimes management lets me suggest things. Usually it’s in one ear, out the other. But I managed to get something on the bill this year.

I’ll keep telling myself that.

I entered the stairwell, heading for the booth. The carpet had regrown some of its pile overnight, and the synthesized citrus smell of whatever disinfectant the cleaner mites use filled the stale air. I gazed at the familiar wall scratches, the divots from dropped boxes, then tucked the program under my shoulder and opened the sticker-plastered door at the top of the stairs.

I dropped the hard copy on a pile of film canisters, thinking of coffee, then yelped as I realized I wasn’t the only person in the room.

The kid stood next to the projector, eyes blank, facing the back wall. Then he blinked.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning? You scared the shit out of me kid. Why are you here so early?”

It dawned on me before he answered.

“…I have nowhere else to go.”

I thought of my crappy little apartment.

“So you’ve been standing here all night with the lights off?”

He nodded.

“We’re supposed to reduce energy use in off-hours.” Like he had the handbook pulled up somewhere in his brain. Or whatever he uses to think.

“Does management know about this?”

That may have been the first time those words ever came out of my mouth.

“I think so.”

He seemed embarrassed. I ran my fingers through my hair, trying to think of something to say.

This felt wrong. Standing here all night, alone in a dark room. At least I had the Bangladeshis. I pulled a chair from the back table and sat down, pointing to another by the platters.

“Sit down, kid.”

He did. Neither of us said anything for a moment.

“Can I ask you something?”

He nodded.

“Are you OK with that?”

I thought he broke for a second. He stared ahead like I hadn’t said anything, gazing somewhere about a mile behind my eyes. Then he shrugged.

“I don’t know.”

I wondered if he’d want to stay with me. Then I thought of HR. Didn’t want to deal with them again. But would they even cover him?

Apparently not, based on everything I was hearing.

“This might be a dumb question, but… You’re not getting paid, are you?”

He shook his head, but then seemed to think better of it. “Well, technically I’m a lease.”

I remembered storming out of Abe’s office, anger boiling over at the faceless machine they wanted to replace me with, sweat pooling under my arms. I had an image in my mind: a metallic drone, with actuators instead of arms and hands and legs, sensors instead of eyes and ears and soft skin.

Would I care if they paid the thing I’d first imagined? Regardless of how smart it was? How it might have felt?

Can he feel?

He seems like he can. Or is that the programming?

I tried to collect my thoughts, struggling with my preconceptions. My own programming. This kid had been my personal bogeyman for weeks. Now I had to sit here and see him for what he was: property.

My watch buzzed. Time to clock in.

September 30th. Final prep for Horrorama was in full swing. The festival kicks off tonight, with a dusk-till-dawn marathon of Annabelle films.

Some people just can’t get enough scary doll movies.

I had the program spread on the back table, going over it as the kid inspected some anamorphic lenses.

It’s a good year: ended up with five weekends this October. Friday the 13th quadruple features run every Friday of the month. Plenty of cosplay nights as well. Not that people need an excuse.

Hollywood was made for Halloween.

A litany of living deads roamed the schedule: Night of the Living Dead, Brunch of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead; alongside the regular old deads: Day of the Dead, Dusk of the Dead, Evil Dead, Dead Headings, Braindead; the debatable inclusion of 28 Days / Weeks / Months Later; and a splattering of cult classics like CHUD and Beneath Hackney Wick.

I noticed the kid had moved from inspecting the lenses to inspecting me.

“You read the program?” I asked.



“…It’s decent.”

“What, you think you could do better?”


Bold, kid. Not that I hadn’t thought the same thing.

“Yeah? You don’t like what they picked for Stephen King Day or something?” I chuckled to myself.

There’s a day dedicated to King adaptations every year. This time around it was Children of the Corn, Cujo, From a Buick 8, The Shining, the good version of Pet Sematary, and Rage.

The kid took the bait:

“If they’re scheduling The Shining, they should have Doctor Sleep too.” He stuck his hands in his pockets, scuffed the linoleum with one of his shoes. “And Children of the Corn is just plain bad.”

Wow. Kid had something to say. And maybe he had a point, but:

“Sometimes bad is good with horror movies, kid. People like to laugh at scary things.”

“I guess. I also think they should’ve included Bedbugs on creature feature night. And not scheduling April Fool’s Day on holiday weekend seems like an oversight.”

“Whoa whoa whoa—what do you know about any of these movies? Half of them came out before you were bor—”

His doe eyes stopped me.

“…Not really sure what your preference is with that.”

He chewed his lip, looking at the wall behind me.

“Made, I guess.”

“Really? Why?”

“Well,” still chewing his lip, “I wasn’t born. I didn’t grow up. I have memories of being younger; period-accurate memories for the archetype I’m designed to emulate… Most are about watching movies.”

He hung his head, toying with the seams on his uniform.

“But I know they’re not real. They’re not mine. I was just made to be like this.” He gestured to his body.

Never thought I’d feel bad for the drone stealing my job.

“If it makes you feel any better, there’s a whole bunch of shit I don’t remember from when I was younger than you… look.”

He sat silent.

“So when were you… How long have you been—”

“Two weeks. Since orientation anyway. That’s the first new thing I remember.”

“Orientation to what?”

“Human interaction.”

I kept asking questions I didn’t want answers to.

I hit my OT ceiling with the kid that night, pre-building the Friday picture reels. Between the two of us, it didn’t take long. And after midnight there wasn’t much to do but wait for the Annabelle marathon to let out.

We sat in front of the focus window, watching the crowd of possessed doll aficionados dwindle. Andy was smiling.

“You actually like this stuff, don’t you kid?”

He nodded, beaming.

Somehow that made me feel even worse. Kid’s practically a slave, but can’t help enjoying himself. Is that his programming, or genuine interest?

Is there any way to tell?

I patted down my coveralls, searching for my Ember. If I was going to be sitting here unpaid, might as well unwind a little bit. Pulling the thin black cylinder out, I held it up in the reflected light from the screen. 

I took a puff, vapor clouding my view as it dispersed into the filtered air of the booth.

“You want some?”

He looked at me like I was already stoned—which I just about was—and shook his head.

“It wouldn’t do anything.”

Should’ve known. Designed as a worker bee. Why would they let him get high? The tension left my shoulders, and what I’d been trying to come to terms with floated to the surface of my mind:

The kid isn’t the problem. The people who made him are.

The projector purred, and we watched.

“This movie sucks.” He said, after a few minutes.

I laughed, and coughed, and laughed.

October 1st. The first full horrorshow day. And the first Friday the 13th marathon.

It’s been smooth sailing, thanks to the kid. We made it through Starry Eyes, The House on Sorority Row, Piranha: Deep Space, and The Devil’s Vineyard without any issues.

Now the original Friday is winding through the Kinoton. It’s a newly “un-restored” print, with over-saturated colors, fake scratches, and reel change cues.

Almost to the jump scare on the lake. I double-check our prep; Part II and Part III are already on platters, with the poorly named Part IV: The Final Chapter ready to be mounted.

Andy looks giddy.

“How you feeling, kid?”

His smirk droops, but only slightly. Like he doesn’t want me to know how much he’s enjoying this.

“Good.” He glances away from the window. “Good.” Nodding, as if he’s reassuring himself it’s true.

My stomach growls. I check my watch. An advertisement for Ghost Specs—smoke swirling around frames made of darker smoke—fades to the time: 21:12. No messages. Eighty degrees. Blood pressure normal.


“Think you can handle the changeover?”

His mouth hangs open.

“Sure. Yeah.” Pride creeps onto his pockmarked face.

The still water of Camp Crystal Lake shines in the theater, hundred-year-old morning sunlight bouncing off the geometric curves of the ceiling. I point to the screen.

“You seen this one before?”

He nods and turns back to the flickering image, but still jumps as Jason’s waterlogged, undead corpse breaches the surface of the lake. I laugh, and he keeps smiling.

“Alright, I’m gonna get some food. You got this.” I pat him on the shoulder, immediately regretting it. Too fatherly.

I pass Abe as I’m exiting the building. He’s here late.

“Another break?”

“Need some food. Kid’s got it under control.”

“Still calling him kid? You know it’s a machine, right?”

I’d like to knock his teeth out.

The cafeteria on Selma is open today. I stop by the poutine kiosk, joining a scattered group of other late-working Hollywood functionaries. The avatars sit idle, looking as bored as the people waiting.

I order two smalls.

Why not let the kid give it a shot? Doubt he’s got poutine in one of those designer memories of his. If he doesn’t want it, I’ll eat it.

A minute later two sealed cardstock cubes slide onto the service counter, my name flash burned on top. Cradling them in my arm, I head for Sunset, and the Dome.

We’re well into Part II when I get back.

The console hums, rapid click click click click click filling the booth as the film moves through the gate. The screen’s reflection lights up the projector window. Squeals and laughter erupt as a machete buries itself in someone’s face.

I can practically smell the corn syrup.

Don’t see the kid. He should be watching the slack loops.

A moan cuts through the normal racket of the booth, coming from the other side of the projector. The work light casts a pale tungsten glow over the assembled reel as it turns.

Coming around the console, I see Abe. He’s facing the corner, left hand pushed against the wall like he’s drunk at a urinal.

He shouldn’t be in here. He’s never in the booth during a show.

As my eyes adjust, I see his hips moving back and forth, other arm by his side, hand clenched about waist level. Tufts of dirty blonde hair stick through his fingers, barely visible in the half-light.

Then I hear the choked sobbing. The gagging.

I drop the food. The hair on my arms stiffens into quills as I lope around the platters and grab the back of Abe’s neck, slamming his face into the wall, ears ringing. The kid slumps into the corner, covering his tear-streaked face. Abe’s arms flail, hands clutching for what’s left of my hair.

I swat his grabbing hands away and smash him against the wall again. And again. When his arms go slack I throw him to the floor. His head catches the corner of the projector with a hollow thud, and the film dances loose. I hear shouts from the audience as the image judders and blurs.

Goddammit. Knocked it off perf.

Autopilot: I run to the other side of the console as a ribbon of celluloid comes loose, killing the advance. The audience goes off, screaming at the projection booth, picture still-framed on a fade to white. I reach for the errant coil of film, blood slick over my fingers. It drips on the reel as I tuck the film back into its loop. A crimson bead makes its way down the base side, sizzling as it touches the gate. The trail of blood enters the live frame, baking under the heat of the lamp.

The audience explodes in a raucous cheer. I punch the advance just as I get the first whiffs of burning celluloid.

The film rolls on.

Blood pools on the floor under Abe’s head, almost black in the darkness of the booth. Weak pulse. Shallow breathing. Can’t tell how deep the cut is.

I need to get him help, or I’ll be in even deeper shit than I already am.

I shuffle over to Andy. He’s still in the corner, staring straight ahead. The tears on his cheeks catch the work lamp’s dim amber light.

He looks more human than ever.

“You OK?”

A teardrop leaks from the corner of his eye, rolls down to his chin. He nods.

I hold out my hand. Most of the blood has dried. A lot of it was mine. Abe managed to scratch me as I was bashing his face against the wall.

The kid stares past it, not looking at anything.

“Come on, kid. Let’s get out of here.”

After a jagged sniffle, he reaches out. His skin feels smooth and warm, like a child’s. He looks at me, and I notice how bloodshot his eyes are. How his eyelids are all puffed up. The way he blinks the tears away.

Someone wrote code for this. Developed software to emulate suffering. Someone got paid to make his pain authentic. His features, his behaviors—they’re indistinguishable from any other teen’s. You’d never know the difference.

I usher him to the door, and we descend to the lobby. A couple guys walking out of the bathroom give us some weird looks, then avert their eyes and continue to the theater. I pull up emergency services on my watch, swiping to an ambulance.

We walk out to Sunset, my hand on his shoulder, into the warm evening of LA’s never-ending summer. A two-story holo of a blood-splattered hockey mask rotates above us, the shimmering light field of blades above that. I hear the sirens, then spot the flashing red and blue of an ambulance curving down through the night sky.

Crouching to the kid’s level, I open my mouth, searching for something to say. Something that would help, would make some part of this alright. But nothing comes. What would?

“Kid—Andy—I’m so—”

He interrupts me, whispering:

“Thank you.”

“…For what?”

“For treating me like a real person.”

Another tear rolls down his face.

Jeff Hewitt is a sci-fi writer living in Los Angeles, California. He studied at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and grew up surrounded by onion mucks in upstate New York.