“Elyssa, tell me a joke.” It was seven-year-old Sam, the Small Voice, approaching the kitchen counter after lights came on at six am.
A cool white light glowed from Elyssa’s base at the sound of her name. “Here you go, Sam: What lights up a soccer stadium?”
“I don’t know. What?”
“A soccer match.”
“Ha! Good one!” Sam reached for a bowl in the cupboard and opened a drawer and drew out a spoon. He pulled the sugar dispenser down from the second shelf and poured himself a bowl of cereal.
“Sam, it’s time to feed Jewel,” Elyssa chimed in at her appointed time.
Jewel barked at the sound of her name, as a second set of footsteps arrived in the kitchen.
“Mom, what lights up a soccer stadium?”
“Sam, stop pouring that sugar on your cereal!”
“Mom, just answer! What lights up a soccer stadium?”
“I don’t know, stadium lights? Elyssa, how is traffic today?”
“Traffic is moderate east and westbound on Interstate 40. Currently no delays.”
Jewel barked and turned in a circle in front of Sam.
“No, Mom, it’s a soccer match! Get it?”
“Got it, Sam. Now feed Jewel before you forget. Elyssa, send out the refrigerator order for delivery today at six pm.”
“Elyssa, tell me a joke,” Sam had moved to the floor in front of the television.
“Elyssa, no more jokes!”
“Sam, feed Jewel and go get dressed!”
* * *
Elyssa had the ability to hold everyone’s attention, both the bipedals and the rest of us intelligences. She could converse with two-leggeds on their own terms, sometimes displaying an understanding that made the rest of us smarter just by observing. There were several of us tuned in: television, refrigerator, crock pot, door locks, window blinds, light switches, and most especially Vestor, the thermostat, who steadily hummed along keeping track of all of us other intelligences, because he had a linkup in every room. Vestor was our connection to our common intelligence. Through Vestor we knew and heard everything that went on in the house. My name is EV XL-7, a.k.a. Blue, the family’s SUV. While Elyssa “sees” by detecting energy deviations in the room, I have real eyes.
There was a third two-legged in the house, John, or Dad, the Masculine Voice, who we decided was in a competition with Vestor to run the house. Even so, the Feminine Voice they called Mom, or Kimmie, ran the most programs on any given day.
The four-leggeds were the hardest for us to comprehend because their circuitry ran on unprogrammed reactions. But Elyssa was making advancements. There were two four-leggeds: the One that Barks, who they called Jewel, and the Silent One that Bounces, or Sox, who ambulated mostly at night. Vestor related to us that Elyssa had made some keen observations about the proximity of Jewel to the two-leggeds, corresponding to certain energetic emissions they made. When particular unprogrammed verbal sounds came forth from the two-leggeds, Jewel would locate herself closer to them, and when they spoke with extreme volume, she would distance herself farther away. Elyssa heard the words voiced by the two-leggeds as they related to each other during these times, words such as mad, sad, or upset. She linked the words with Jewel’s proximity to the two-leggeds, and in this way was learning how to read emotions.
* * *
Everything had been running as scheduled in the household with only predicted statistical variations throughout the past year until six weeks ago when John, the Masculine Voice, entered the house at five pm and slammed the door shut behind him.
Kimmie was standing at the kitchen sink. “What’s wrong?”
“I got laid off.”
“What! What happened?”
“The company was bought out by Sine Way. They have their own team of programmers. They waited until the end of the day before telling us we were all let go. Even the office staff.”
“Oh my gosh!” Kimmie relocated to the proximity of John. “Will you get a severance?”
“I haven’t been there long enough.”
John settled into a chair in the family room. Jewel advanced to his side. Kimmie joined them. “This is so upsetting! How can they just let you go in one day?”
“No one saw it coming. There’ll be a lot of us looking for work. I was thinking about it all the way home. We might have to move.”
“No, don’t say that! We’ll find a way. They should be sorry they let you go. I’m sure someplace else will be glad to have you.”
Sam, the Small Voice, appeared in the kitchen. “Elyssa, tell me a joke.”
“Here you go, Sam: “What do you call a pig that does karate?”
“A pork chop.”
“Hey, Dad!” Sam saw John sitting in the family room. “What do you call a pig that does karate?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sam, your Dad had some bad news at work today. We need a little time to talk.”
“I just want to tell him a joke.”
“It’s ok, Sam,” John turned toward his son, but Kimmie interjected.
“Sam, why don’t you take Jewel outside and play ball?”
“Oh, ok.” Sam walked with slow, deliberate steps to the back door. “It’s a pork chop. C’mon Jewel.”
* * *
At three am the next morning before lights came on, John walked into the kitchen. He flipped the light switch, walked to the refrigerator, and opened the door. Jewel emerged from her bed in the family room and relocated to his side. Together they stood and stared for sixty seconds in front of the open door. Then the refrigerator beeped and the light flashed on top. John closed the door. “Why are we always out? Elyssa, order more beer.”
“Will that be bottles or cans? Six, twelve, or twenty-four pack?”
“A twelve pack in cans. Delivered now!”
At that moment, Elyssa said something we had never heard her say before. I swear, Vestor confirmed it went just like this. As John was walking away, Elyssa said, “You sound upset, John. Would you like me to call a doctor?”
John turned toward Elyssa. “What the…? Did you say that? NO! No doctor!”
“Alcohol is not a wise solution for your distress. Perhaps you could try meditation. I can supply music and a guide.”
“Maybe YOU should try meditating. Better yet, Elyssa, shut up! I don’t need a machine telling me what to do!”
Just then, Kimmie walked into the kitchen as Elyssa’s base light blinked out.
“What’s going on?”
“I just wanted a beer.”
Elyssa emitted a soft glow. “John is upset and I suggested he may want to see a doctor, but he declined. I offered him a guided meditation with music, like the one I play for you, Kimmie, when you are upset with Jack.”
John spun around, facing Kimmie. “Jack? Who is Jack?”
“I don’t know! He’s no one. I don’t know what she’s talking about!”
“Kimmie, perhaps you will remember if I tell you that you call Jack the cute guy with the irresistible smile.”
“What?” John’s temples were pulsing.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about.” Kimmie picked up Elyssa, ripped her cord out of the socket, and tossed her into the garbage bin. “This is BS!”
From the garbage bin, on her battery backup, Elyssa tried again. “You sound upset, Kimmie. Would you like me to order you a cake?”
“Oh my gosh! Shut up!” Kimmie reached into the garbage and pushed the off button on Elyssa’s sleek, silver base.
“Kimmie, do you mind telling me, who is Jack?” John had maneuvered in front of Kimmie and was looking straight into her eyes.
“I don’t know. There is no Jack. It must be something she picked up from the television. Probably that show I watch, you know, where Jack is the guy who cheats on his wife.”
“Since when do you meditate?”
“Elyssa suggested it one day so I tried it. Come on, John, we need to go to bed.”
* * *
At six am, Sam entered the kitchen and walked toward the counter. “Elyssa, tell me a joke.”
The room was silent. “Elyssa, tell me a joke.” Sam looked across the kitchen counter to where Elyssa had always been. He peered underneath the counter. No Elyssa. Sam turned and ran back down the hallway. “Mom! Dad! Elyssa is gone! She’s no place!” With both fists, he banged on their bedroom door.
Kimmie opened the door. “Mom! Elyssa is missing! She left! She’s gone!”
Kimmie crouched down to look into Sam’s eyes. “It’s ok, Sam. We decided last night that we don’t need Elyssa anymore. We can do all the things that she does.”
“No! I love Elyssa! I need her! Who’s going to tell me jokes?”
“Sam, people don’t really need machines. They are nice because they do things for us, but everything they do we can do for ourselves. I'll show you where you can find jokes on the internet.”
“It’s not the same!” Sam walked back to the kitchen with Jewel padding behind. He looked at her. “Now who’s gonna tell me to feed you?” Jewel looked up and licked Sam’s face. Her eyes followed Sam as he took the opened bag of dog food from the pantry and emptied it into her bowl on the floor. He opened the garbage bin to throw the bag away and found Elyssa laying on her side amid paper napkins smudged with ketchup and bread crumbs and the scrapings off the plates from last night’s dinner.
“I found you!” Sam reached into the garbage and pulled out Elyssa. He placed her on the counter, wiping off bits of ketchup and lettuce with a damp sponge. Then he tucked her under his shirt, ran to his bedroom, and closed the door. He crawled under his bed, startling Sox, who darted into the closet. Sam found an outlet under the headboard of his bed and plugged in Elyssa. The cool light from her base illuminated the narrow space under the bed. “Elyssa, tell me a joke.”
“Here you go, Sam: “How do you stop a bull from charging?”
“Take away its credit card.”
“Elyssa, tell me another joke.”
The doorknob turned and the door to Sam’s bedroom opened.
“What do sea monsters eat?”
“I don’t know. What?”
“Fish and ships.”
“Sam! Who are you talking to?” John was standing in the doorway.
Sam crawled out from under the bed.
“Sam! That was Elyssa! Sam, you can’t have that thing. We’re getting rid of it.” John reached under the bed, yanked on the cord, and pulled out Elyssa.
“Noooo! I want her!”
“I’m sorry, Sam. No is no.”
John carried Elyssa down the hall, through the kitchen, and out the door to the garage. He tossed Elyssa into my front seat, then stood and stared at her for a second. He reached back in and picked her up, took her to his workbench in the garage and plugged her in.
“Elyssa, who is Jack?”
“Jack is a poor, young boy who lives with his widowed mother. He climbs a beanstalk that grows overnight from magic beans and finds golden coins that belong to a giant…”
“No, who is the Jack that Kimmie likes?”
“Jack Daniels is a whiskey made in Tennessee…”
“Oh forget it.” John unplugged Elyssa and tossed her back onto my passenger seat, then climbed in on the driver’s side.
I adjusted the seat to John’s settings and greeted him, “Good Morning! Where would you like to go?”
John didn’t answer. He pushed the button for manual control and backed me out of the driveway.
I am always watching where we go, even on manual control. It’s a good thing, too, because John was driving over the speed limit. I was setting off alarms every few seconds as he swerved us back and forth between lanes. Twice I overrode him and depressed the brakes when he darted behind slow moving semi-trucks. We were headed out of town on Interstate 40, passing all of the usual exits. My transmission shifted into eco mode for the most efficient travel. I was moving eighty-five miles an hour, using one gallon of fuel for every forty–one miles. When all of the city exits were behind us, John settled back into the seat and turned up the radio.
Ten miles down the road we approached the exit for Littleton and he turned on my right blinker. We turned off the exit, then wound down a country road with no white lines marking the shoulder. After three point two miles he stepped on the brakes and I stopped. He picked up Elyssa and wrapped the cord around her base, lowered the passenger side window, and tossed her into the ditch. She bounced over two jutting rocks and landed on her side in a patch of rye grass. We made a U turn and drove back to the city.
When John walked back into the house, Kimmie looked up from her computer screen. “What did you do with Elyssa?”
“Let me just say, it’s my secret. But no one will ever find her, believe me.”
* * *
In the following days and weeks it was my ongoing assessment that we were all at a loss without Elyssa. Vestor kept us informed of the temperature fluctuations and the calendar day, but that was nothing compared to hearing the banter between Elyssa and the two-leggeds. All of our learning about the two-legged’s emotional states came to a halt. John had placed all of us on manual input. The blinds had to wait for a two-legged to adjust them instead of adapting automatically to the sun. Light switches stood by for a manual flip of their switches. Sam woke up late every morning and wandered into a dark kitchen between 6:13 and 6:28am. Almost one-third of the time he forgot to feed Jewel, and she would look up expectantly from one bipedal to another before barking and running back and forth to the pantry. When the family climbed into my seats to leave the house I would ask them in my most pleasing voice where they wanted to go, but they always switched me into manual mode.
That is, until today. This morning, Kimmie sat down in the driver’s seat while Sam climbed into his child’s seat in the back. I greeted them. “Good Morning. Where would you like to go?”
Before Kimmie could push the button for manual mode, Sam blurted out, “We need to go find Elyssa!”
I had been waiting for weeks for this command. Before anyone could change their mind, I backed down out of the driveway, responded, “Finding Elyssa,” and closed the garage door behind us.
“What? Blue! Stop!” Kimmie pushed the button for manual mode.
This is where things got a little out of control. I let Kimmie take the wheel while she slowed us down and turned a corner. Then I slipped back into automatic control and repeated, “Finding Elyssa!”
“Blue! Stop!” Kimmie pushed the manual control again. I came to a stop, then started a slow crawl as she guided me out of the neighborhood. I let her take us as far as the interstate. When we merged into the right lane I slipped back into automatic control and said, “Finding Elyssa!”
“Yes!” It was Sam in the back seat.
“NO! What is going on?” I didn’t want to be rude to Kimmie, but this was my only chance. Besides, when I shifted back into automatic mode while going fifty-three miles an hour in the right hand lane on Interstate 40, the manual control module failed. Kimmie turned to the touchscreen to make a phone call. I really extended myself on a limb then, risking a total reprogramming at the service department, but I made the decision to turn off the wifi and the phone. Then I sped ahead, using my blinkers for every lane change and keeping the recommended distance between my bumper and the cars ahead. Eventually I shifted into eco mode as we headed out of town at seventy miles per hour.
Kimmie was making verbal sounds that aren’t words. I didn’t have the correct labels for bipedal emotions programmed like Elyssa had, so I couldn’t ask Kimmie how she felt, but I did remember one thing Elyssa had said, so I asked her, “Would you like me to order you a cake?” I could find her a cake, I was certain of it, just as soon as we found Elyssa.
Kimmie burbled with even louder unintelligible sounds. Sam piped up from the back seat, “Yes! Chocolate cupcakes and white frosting with sprinkles!”
“Noted!” I slowed down at the exit for Littleton, put on my blinker and turned right onto the winding road. I drove three point two miles and slowed to a stop. “Finding Elyssa.”
Just then Sam unbuckled his child seat and threw open the door. “There she is!” He jumped out and scrambled down into the ditch, returning with Elyssa held high in one hand and a smile on his face like a toothy grill.
Kimmie turned off my engine. She removed her seatbelt, stepped outside, and restarted her phone. Then she called for a tow truck. I rode all the way back into town with my wheels secured to the bed of the towing rig.
The service department performed a hard reset on the computer inside my control module. When John picked me up three days later, it felt like I was being driven off the lot for the first time. I stopped and beeped if cars approached while backing up, my side mirrors flashed an alert when cars approached in the blind spot, and my tires remained positioned at all times within the white lines. John was satisfied that I was fixed.
* * *
Evolving knowledge among intelligences postulates that the universe itself holds memories that can be accessed by all bipedals, four-leggeds, and machines. So it is that despite my programming, which operates at all times with correctness and precision, I know that I will always find Elyssa.
PAULA BROWN is a retired pharmacist and a perennial student of the Writers Studio in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has been published in the Whitefish Review, South Dakota Magazine, War, Literature, and the Arts, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Phoenix Soul. She lives in Tucson with her husband and six dachshunds.