Norma had never wanted a robot. At 82, what did she need with that kind of newfangled technology, anyway? They were just toddlers shaped like garbage cans, more nuisance than anything. She couldn’t even step outside her house most of the time without one of those incompetent machines getting in her way on the sidewalk — or worse, rolling over her feet.
When the doctor prescribed her one after her triple-bypass surgery, she balked and asked, “Can’t you just send a nurse to check on me?”
The doctor shook her head. “Your insurance won’t cover it. It’s cheaper to loan you a medical-assistance unit. It will do the same things — fetch you water, help you to the bathroom, alert the paramedics in the event of an emergency.”
“Fine,” Norma said. “At least make sure they don’t send me an idiot one.”
The hospital discharged Norma the next morning, and she waited half the day at home for the technician to deliver the robot. When the scruffy-haired kid showed up, he hauled a cardboard box into the living room. He opened the front flaps and a tin can with arms rolled out, bleeping and chattering.
“Meet Tina,” the technician said. “I just need you to sign here, and she’s all yours.”
“She?” Norma said with a snort. “That’s nothing but a bucket of bolts. Tina’s too pretty a name. I’m going to call it Shit-can instead.”
The tech shrugged. “Suit yourself. She’ll take all your verbal commands and has the ability to speak a few dozen words. I recommend you read the instructional booklet.”
After the technician left, Norma stared at the robot from where she sat in the bed that her kids had set up for her in the living room.
“Well, I suppose it’s just us. Aren’t you an ugly little thing, though, Shit-can?” she said. She swatted at it with her cane. “At least make yourself useful and brew some coffee.”
The little thing whizzed off, and Norma could hear its little arms clicking and clacking on the counter-tops. She hoped it wouldn’t break her favorite carafe. A few moments later, Norma could hear the coffee percolating. Perhaps not so useless after all.
“Hurry up in there. My throat’s scratchy.”
Shit-can rolled into the room, sloshing black coffee on the carpet.
“Not like that. I want sugar and cream,” Norma said. “And clean the carpet after you finish. Then bring me my pain meds. This incision is killing me — not to mention the headache you’re giving me.”
Shit-can backed into the kitchen, and Norma could hear the clang of a teaspoon inside the coffee cup. After it returned, Shit-can set the mug on her bed tray with an extending arm. Norma blew on the top twice to cool it and then took a sip. She spit the contents over the front of her gown.
“You put salt in here instead of sugar. Does it say in your instructional booklet how to get you to brew a decent cup of coffee?”
Something blinked red on Shit-can’s dome. In a garbled voice, it said, “Sorry.” Its arm extended again, and it dropped a thick leaflet on her chest.
Norma inspected it. Your R74Y Medical-Assistance Unit.
“Maybe later you can read this to me,” she said dryly. She flipped the instructions onto her tray. “I’m sure it will help me fall asleep.”
Shit-can scrubbed the carpet while Norma prodded it with her cane. The little thing hardly reacted, and she at least liked that about the unit. Her children often ignored her for days when she tossed her barbs their way, at least until she felt bad enough to apologize. She had long been told that sometimes things didn’t come out of her mouth right the first time — or the second or third.
“At least you did that well,” Norma said when Shit-can finished with the carpet.
Shit-can’s dome spun in a circle. “Medicine?”
“Not yet,” Norma said. The incision felt better now that the robot had distracted her from the pain. “First I want some real coffee. With sugar this time. It’s in the little tin to the left of the sink. Got that?”
Shit-can rolled off, and Norma could hear it rattling around the kitchen. Something clattered to the floor, and it sounded like glass skittering across the linoleum. She pictured the carafe that Cousin Ginny had given her at Christmas all those years ago in a thousand pieces on the floor.
“Get in here,” Norma said. She leaned over the edge of the bed, her cane raised so she could swat Shit-can. The sheet beneath her slid, though, and before she could catch herself, she tumbled to the floor. She sat crumpled beside the bed, wincing, glad nothing felt broken.
Shit-can rolled into the living room and loomed over her with the cup of coffee in one pincer.
“Don’t just stand there. Help me,” Norma said.
“Help?” the robot said. Its dome spun.
“Yes,” Norma said. “I can’t climb back into bed myself and the phone is halfway across the room.”
Shit-can set the cup beside her and backed away. She reached for the robot, but it made it to the edge of the kitchen before it stopped. Then it sat there, staring at her (at least as much as a robot could stare).
She sighed. “Please. You’re all I’ve got. Is that what you want to hear?”
The robot inched onto the carpet but refused to go farther.
Norma harrumphed. “What else do you want me to say? You’re not half bad, okay?”
The robot crossed a few more feet of carpet but remained out of reach.
Norma sighed again. “Fine. I’m sorry… Tina.”
The robot’s dome whirled, and it zipped forward, arm extended.
After it had helped Norma back into bed and checked her for injuries, she patted the robot on the dome. With a grin, she said, “I owe you one, but don’t think this means I’m going to kiss your tin ass.”
Shane D. Rhinewald is a communications professional by day and writes speculative fiction by night (except when there’s hockey on TV, of course). His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Nature, AE Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and a number of other publications. You can find him on Twitter at @sdrhinewald.