Nick Pearson loved his smart house. At his command the smart-fridge checked the ingredients on its shelves and suggested three dinners for this evening. Nick said, “Vegetarian quiche for three, side of broccoli,” and the fridge went to work, sorting and defrosting, shooting the recipe off to the smart prepper-cooker. As Nick transferred the ingredients, the nearest smart monitor alerted him to two figures approaching the front door: Alice and their eight-year-old daughter Erica, whom Alice had just retrieved from after-school detention. “Open front door,” Nick commanded.
Erica was in her usual state, pulling at her mother’s arm, whining about the “stupid” sneakers that had arrived by drone last evening. Alice shook her arm free and ordered their smart car to garage itself. “You, get inside,” she told Erica. “Go complain to your father.”
“No,” Erica said, stamping a foot.
“In!” Alice said, pushing her over the threshold.
Erica stormed to her room, a den of havoc—heaped clothing, electronic gadgets, food wrappers. She slammed the door and commanded, “Lock!”
At dinner time Nick tried to calm the child by letting her issue the room-comfort commands. Erica ordered pitch darkness and a quick freeze. “Darn you”, her mother cried, “you’re a nightmare!” She reset the room.
Nick brought dinner to the table while Alice ordered the smart blender to make a spinach smoothie for Erica. Erica shoved it away, splashing green goo over her setting. Ecch.
Nick settled into his place and was about to cue the smart wall for an evening of news and light drama when Erica commanded it to “Play Mean Girls! All night!” At once the wall filled with the spiteful, menacing faces of the Plastics clique. Erica karate-chopped her quiche. “Yeah!” Again. “Yeah!” Food flew.
It was Nick who first came across the ad for smart-child conversion, or rather the ad came across him, possibly suggested by the home’s monitoring software. Alice encountered the same ad on her main social-media feed, suspecting that she’d said something in a post about her exasperation with Erica.
She discussed it with Nick. “It’s done with what they call ‘smart personality reprogramming.’ No one has to go anywhere or see anyone. She just has to play the ‘game’ online and the game does the rest.”
“I think she likes games,” Nick said. “I think that’s what she mostly does in her room.”
“I don’t know what she does locked in there. But something has to change. She has to learn to learn that her parents—adults—are to be heeded without question.”
“This game—it wouldn’t hurt her? Turn her into some kind of zombie?”
“It’s only supposed to change her attitude.”
“Can we trust it?”
“I think so. It says it was developed in Germany and approved by the International Society of Smart-Behavioral . . . something.”
“There’s such an outfit?”
“I guess. Whatever. I just can’t handle another minute of her antagonism, her resistance, can you?”
“It’s hard. I don’t know what’s wrong with her. I mean, she’s a . . . smart kid, a little computer genius.”
“But not smart-smart. All I ask is for is an obedient little girl, Nick. Blindly obedient.”
Tears came. He held her. “Yes. Me, too.”
To their pleasant surprise, Erica embraced the game when it arrived on her computer, locking herself in with it and emerging only to announce how cool it was and how she was progressing to the highest scoring level. After several days she started leaving her door ajar as she played, waving when a parent passed by.
There came remarkable changes in behavior. She greeted her parents cheerily. She sprang to assist with what few non-automated household tasks remained. She ate eagerly, gratefully. “Thanks, Mom and Dad. This is so-o-o delicious!”
One morning she surprised them by programming lattes and croissants before they’d arrived in the kitchen. “Because I love you,” she told the astounded parents.
In the giddiness of success, they toyed with Erica’s new unquestioning obedience. “Erica—sing!” Alice commanded one morning. The girl mounted a kitchen chair, put hands to heart, and rendered a sweet if squeaky version of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Later that day Nick joined in the fun. “Erica—dance!” Erica spread her arms, raised her chin, and pirouetted around the family room, adding a few comical shakes. The family laughed together.
On a Saturday morning, after the autonomous vehicle had delivered Erica to a play-date with gaming peers, Nick and Alice found themselves lured into Erica’s wide-open room by the glow of her desktop monitor—as well as by a remarkable neatness they’d never witnessed.
“What is it that’s turned our little demon into a smart daughter?” Nick said, leaning toward the huge monitor screen. “Look at this, will you?”
The monitor said: HI MOM AND DAD! TOUCH ANY KEY TO BEGIN. LOVE, ERICA.
“Aww, how can we not?” Alice laughed. “She’s been the best smart-daughter ever!”
It was a game. Seemingly simple, but hypnotic in the realism of its avatars—the three family members—and its sounds and effects.
“Want to grab another chair and play?” Nick asked Alice. “This is so incredible!”
By game’s end they barely noticed that Erica had returned and was standing behind them. With glazed eyes and slumped shoulders, they seemed to be taking in very little. Not even the final credit flashing on the screen.
CREATED AND PRODUCED BY ERICA PEARSON, PRESIDENT, INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY OF SMART-BEHAVIORAL DEVELOPMENT
“Parents!” Erica barked. “Go to your bedroom and stay till summoned.”
Nick and Alice snapped to, smiling blankly at Erica as they marched to their room.
“Nutella pizza!” Erica ordered in the kitchen. “Mean Girls 2!” she called to the smart-wall. She pulled up the smart-shopper interface. “Fendi girls shoes,” she began, choosing a $490 pair of sneakers in her size. Tomorrow she would have her smart parents bring her . . . Pop Tarts in bed.
Arthur Plotnik is the author of eight books, including Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style and two Book-of-the-Month Club selections: The Elements of Expression and The Elements of Editing. Among his many publications are award-winning fiction, essays, poetry, and biography. He studied under Philip Roth at the Iowa Writers Workshop and worked as editorial director for the American Library Association. A former columnist for The Writer magazine, he lives in Chicago.