The Chris doll had arrived from Amazon.
Melodie considered herself lucky that she’d snagged one of these coveted talking dolls for her six-year-old daughter Lizbeth. Before the doll arrived Melodie had been subjected to endless whining because Lizbeth’s friend Tiffany, who lived next door, got her Chris doll two weeks before Lizbeth.
Chris dolls came in two versions — Christina and Christopher —and while Lizbeth had considered ordering Christopher, in the end she had chosen the more traditional option of buying Christina.
The manufacturer assured consumers that both versions had the identical range of talking capabilities, both being connected to the same Internet programming. Christina dolls, the manufacturer said, were not more likely than Christopher dolls to discuss careers in teaching rather than careers in engineering. “The doll will encourage each child’s own interests,” the advertising trumpeted.
Now five days later Melodie found herself trying to overhear the conversations between Lizbeth and her Christina doll. Even the bits that Lizbeth shared with her mother had begun to frighten Melodie.
“Christina says that I don’t have to study my math homework every night,” Lizbeth said. “She says math isn’t that important to know.”
“Why not?” Melodie had asked.
“Because computers do all that now and I don’t have to.”
Melodie had felt the first tremor of anxiety as Lizbeth delivered this bombshell. Melodie had immediately offered up numerous examples of Lizbeth needing to use math in daily life. For example, she might want to know whether $5 or 10% off a computer game would save more money.
Lizbeth had replied that she could use the calculator on her own tablet to figure that out. And later, Lizbeth reported, when she had asked Christina about this, the doll had told Lizbeth to just choose whichever discount she liked best.
The next day Lizbeth’s first grade teacher sent a message via the school’s intranetwork asking why Lizbeth hadn’t turned in her week’s spelling words each written five times. When Melodie asked Lizbeth about this, Lizbeth replied that Christina said it wasn’t necessary. The doll had told Lizbeth that spellcheck would take care of any incorrectly spelled words.
That evening Melodie sat at her desk using her tablet to watch an episode of her favorite TV fictional drama about an FBI unit hunting terrorists in the U.S. She clicked “pause” on the show and switched the screen to Amazon. Then she searched for baby monitoring devices.
She found one device so small she could easily hide it in Lizbeth’s room. For only a moment Melodie considered what her husband John might say if he knew what she planned. But John and the men and women serving under him were somewhere in Afghanistan. And after all, it was her job to keep Lizbeth safe at home.
By the time the monitoring device arrived two days later, Melodie’s anxiety level had risen even higher. Lizbeth’s teacher had again messaged. This time she said that Lizbeth did not pay attention in class and instead spent her time clutching her backpack to her chest.
The moment Melodie met Lizbeth after school that afternoon Melodie demanded to see Lizbeth’s backpack. Lizbeth resisted, saying that Christina had explained that Lizbeth’s backpack was her private property and Lizbeth didn’t have to let others see inside.
Ignoring Lizbeth’s crying, Melodie wrestled the backpack from Lizbeth’s arms and peered inside.
Yes, there was Christina, her talking mouth for the moment unmoving.
“You cannot take Christina with you to school,” Melodie said.
“She’s my best friend!” Lizbeth said.
Melodie mentally counted to 10 before replying, afraid of what she might say and equally afraid of what she feared. She could not talk about brainwashing to a six-year-old. She must find a way to separate Lizbeth from her doll.
“What about this?” Melodie said. “You can take Christina to school but each morning I’ll remove her Wi-Fi computer chip and I’ll replace it each day after school.”
Lizbeth stamped both feet. “She won’t be able to talk to me when I’m at school!”
“It’s either that or she stays at home with me.”
Lizbeth stared up at her mother, tears streaming down her eyes. “I hate you!” she said. “You can’t touch Christina!”
After dinner, a meal eaten in silence as Lizbeth refused to speak to her mother, Melodie eavesdropped via the monitoring device on Lizbeth and Christina’s conversation. What she heard horrified her!
“You do not need to listen to your mother,” the doll said. “Parents these days have way too many rules for children.”
Melodie managed to stop herself from running into Lizbeth’s bedroom and throwing the doll out the window. Was it a crime to murder your child’s doll?
Instead Melodie ran into the bathroom and splashed water on her face. She was the mother — she could simply get rid of the doll. But then, she knew, all hell would break out and living with Lizbeth might be unbearable, especially with John half way around the world.
And, no, she wasn’t going to worry John about this. He had to worry about the lives and well-being of his soldiers. Surely Melodie could deal with one talking doll.
That evening after Lizabeth had gone to bed Melodie wondered whether she had lost perspective. How could she be afraid of a doll? A doll wasn’t real, and Christina wasn’t even a robot. She couldn’t search for a misplaced backpack or pour apple juice
But she could talk. And what she said could be dangerous.
Melodie scoured the Internet looking for opinions by other parents about the Chris talking doll. She found a Facebook group where people shared the cute comments their children’s dolls had said. She found tweets sharing the latest bon mots. Nowhere did she find comments worried about what the dolls might say to impressionable children.
Maybe only Lizbeth’s doll had this defect of subversive commentary? If so, perhaps Melodie could contact Amazon customer service for a replacement. Of course, Lizbeth’s doll didn’t speak to Melodie. Each Chris doll had imprinting software — the doll spoke only to the person whose voice was initially imprinted via the doll’s communication panel.
“Lizbeth,” Melodie said at breakfast the next morning, “you should be careful about what Christina tells you. She’s a doll and she’s programmed to say certain things that may not be true.”
Lizbeth jumped up from the table and grabbed Christina, who had been propped on an adjoining chair. “Of course she tells the truth!” Lizbeth said. “Christina always says it is very important to tell the truth.”
Melodie watched Lizbeth’s tearful leave taking of her doll before Lizbeth marched out the front door.
Neither Melodie nor Lizbeth spoke on the walk to school, and Lizbeth ran onto the playground without kissing her mother good-bye.
During the school day Melodie usually created artwork for a design firm for which she freelanced. Today she found herself finding excuses to procrastinate — the linen closet needed sorting, John’s sweaters had to be mothballed, the soup recipe she had planned to make this weekend would be good for dinner tonight.
As she procrastinated she thought about the times in recent world history when children had been encouraged to report their parents to totalitarian authorities — Nazi Germany, Communist Russia. Could a doll actually get a child to turn against her parent?
At 2 p.m., an hour before she had to meet Lizbeth at school, the doorbell rang. Melodie looked through the peephole and faced FBI identification credentials.
She opened the door to a man and a woman. The man said, “We have questions regarding national security.”
Melodie felt her hands breaking out in sweat.
The woman said, “Your next-door neighbor was reported as expressing anti-American sentiments. Someone called our tip line. We’d like to talk to you about her.”
Melodie glanced at Christina sitting on the hall bench waiting for Lizbeth’s return. Too late Melodie thought in the moment before she blacked out.
© 2016 Miller Mosaic LLC
Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and is the author of fiction and nonfiction books/ebooks. Phyllis is available by skype for book group discussions and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Her Kindle fiction ebooks may be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszimblermiller — and her Kindle nonfiction ebooks may also be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszmiller