The Speak & Spell Plus was purchased at the Little Ridge K-Mart for $24.95, plus the six percent state sales tax. The technological treasure was then hidden within Minnie Mouse wrapping paper for two weeks before being exposed to the glow of Christmas morning by the eager hands of six-year-old Jean Briere.
Jean let out a sigh of frustration at the sight of yet another educational toy before plopping it on a pile of Striker Force and Berenstain Bears Easy Reader books, a spelling magnet game, and a word search video game.
During the Thanksgiving parent-teacher conference, Mrs. Dennison warned Jean’s parents that the girl would be repeating the first grade if she failed to improve her spelling and reading comprehension skills. The resulting avalanche of “fun” reading instruments did nothing to inspire the girl. Mrs. Dennison thought the tough-love approach might be beneficial and would call Jean up to the chalkboard to answer spelling challenges. The self-assured old woman would let Jean flounder and insert the wrong solution hoping to embarrass her into learning in front of the class. Instead, Jean’s confidence melted away beneath the blazing spotlight that shone down upon her inadequacies.
“Reading is stupid!” was the automated reply triggered with each parental misstep taken by the Brieres as they figured out how to deal with their daughter.
Jean abandoned her ruined Christmas and left the room in silence. Her mother called after her, but Jean felt too defeated to let out a scream or a whimper. She just wanted reading to go away. Jean laid in bed quietly, unsure if she was waiting for someone to come talk to her or just waiting to feel something other than exhausted. She closed her eyes and tried to let out her tears, but she couldn’t even muster the right combination of feelings to create tears.
“WE’RE SOR-RY,” buzzed a robotic voice through the gap beneath her door. The strange sound made her jump. “MOM-MY AND DAD-DY TRIE-D TOO HAR-D,” the digital voice apologized, “BUT WE-E THINK YOU’LL LIKE THIS T–OY.”
Jean scowled and buried her face in her pillow, dead set on being angry for the rest of the day. That was until the Speak & Spell Plus released its first bit of magic: “POO-P. POO-P-Y FAR-TS TASTE YUM-M-Y.”
A giggle emerged from behind the door, and a minute later, so did Jean.
“How did you make it do that?” she asked, curling up in her kneeling father’s lap, rubbing tears from her cheeks.
He closed his arm around her and placed the learning toy in her tiny hands. “P-O-O-P,” he spelled out, “can you find those letters on here?”
Potty humor and the Speak & Spell Plus saved Jean from clutches of illiteracy. It was only a matter of months before Jean was cruising through her easy reader books, with an occasional hint from the machine. By the following Christmas, the machine had worked its way to the bottom of the toy chest and went unseen until Jean received a D+ on her second consecutive seventh-grade Spanish test.
It took a full week of struggling with Spanish homework before she realized the true power of the Speak & Spell Plus: she could use the machine to cheat. The machine could do it all: English, French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, all spoken in an unaccented monotone. Just as she’d learned English by plugging in meaningless words, Spanish would eventually come to her. Jean didn’t want to bother with the translator function, mainly because she knew all she needed to know at the ripe age of thirteen: the government was corrupt, god wasn’t real, Robert Smith was the greatest musician of all time, and the only color worthy of her closet was black.
Fellow mall goth and the new kid in town, Greg Paldach, tried to trick the machine into saying P-E-N-I-S one night, tossing it violently against the couch after a few failed attempts of PEN IS. Jean suggested typing P-I-A-N-I-S-T, having mastered the naughty words in early second grade, but Greg wouldn’t bother trying. Instead, he ranted about how stupid technology is and how computers are going to kill us all one day. Jean thought he was cute when he was frustrated.
The two were drawn together on the first day of school by their shared love of baggy, black apparel and gloomy music. The handsome new boy would bring over records she hadn’t heard from bands like Bauhaus and Samhain, and he’d spend hours explaining to her what each song was written about. Jean would listen intently because if she didn’t, he would quiz her. This knowledge was sacred and not meant to be shared. Greg scolded Jean for getting Tony Moore, who sat next to her in homeroom, hooked on The Misfits. Tony wore football jerseys and wore Nike. “He’s not our kind,” Greg had snarled, “he’s just listening to make fun of us.” Jean never sat near Tony again for fear it would upset Greg.
On Mischief Night, Greg brought over a weird spell book he claimed to have stolen from an antique bookstore in the city. The slim leather tome held only a dozen secret spells. Each page intricately inked with drawings of demons and angels and fire. The volume promised to deliver everything from death to resurrection, at least that was according to the translations a previous owner had inked into the margins. Jean was impressed by this, just like all the other occult items he’d bring her to marvel at. He made sure to point out the absence of a barcode on the back cover and how it added to the book’s legitimacy since it was obviously not “mass-produced poser stuff.”
Though the book did not specify it, the pair drew a chalky pentagram on the concrete floor of Jean’s garage. They lit candles on all five points and in the center, they placed a sacrifice, not that the spell had called for this either. The mousetrap under the kitchen sink had delivered a half-dead rodent whose broken back made escape highly unlikely. Jean took the book first and began to read aloud from the page titled “The Truthmaker,” which was noted as speaking the new truth. She sputtered the strange Latin words, but after a few false starts and a minute of hesitation, Greg snatched the book from her hands, muttering about her lameness. After a few failed attempts to pronounce the first line of his own, Greg laid the book down.
“I have an idea,” Greg declared after a long silence in which he glared angrily at Jean, placing the blame onto her. He disappeared through the door that led to the kitchen. Jean found the empty candlelit garage unnerving, imagining the red demon crawling its way up from the spell book. She backed away from the circle towards the light of the kitchen door. Singing along to ghoulish songs was one thing, playing Bloody Mary and wearing fishnet was fun, but this all felt a little too dark for her.
Greg returned, holding the Speak and Spell Plus in his hands and guided her back to the center of the garage. The paralyzed mouse squealed and shook in fear as the pair kneeled once more outside the pentagram. Greg fiddled with the controls, switching it from Spanish to Latin, and began punching in the dark arrangements of long-dead phrases; the machine’s electric voice butchering the ancient language. And when the final words had been spoken and the box had nothing more to offer, the teenagers made their wishes.
“I wish to become a vampire,” Greg declared confidently, running his tongue across his teeth immediately as if fangs would have sprouted in an instant.
“I said, I wish to become a vampire!” he shouted irately, rising to his feet and pacing around the pentagram. He repeated his wish two more times before having a vile epiphany: the mouse shrieked in horror, and Jean gasped, as Greg’s Doc Marten boot came crunching down atop the helpless creature.
“Sacrifice complete,” he spat, the veins in his neck throbbed uncontrollably as he panted, “you go, Jean, make your wish.”
“I wish—” Jean stumbled, looking concerned at her friend’s bulging eyes.
“What do you wish for?” he demanded impatiently.
“I wish the cutest boy in school would love me,” Jean whispered shyly.
The red in his face switched from anger to blush as he realized who she meant. They kissed and one of their wishes began to come true.
Jean did not touch the Speak and Spell Plus again after that night. While she cleaned up the evidence of their evil ritual, Greg absentmindedly rested the machine on top of an old cupboard, where it sat for five years collecting dust.
When Jean and Greg left for college, Mrs. Briere held a garage sale and labeled the spelling tool that had jump-started her daughter’s education for $1, not bothering to wipe off the thick layer of dust that had gathered atop the machine. The filthy machine caught the eyes of several small children and a few nostalgic adults, but Michael Gray was the only one to pick it up. He’d been out for a Saturday morning bike ride—part of his new exercise routine to help him slim down. His father expected Michael to complete three miles every morning with him, even on Saturdays; this meant if he didn’t finish up by 8:30 a.m., he’d miss the new episode of Striker Force. However, his dad had spotted Mr. Briere putting out a crate of vinyl records and the two struck up a conversation about David Bowie. When they put an album on, Michael’s chances of making it home in time were scratched away. He fiddled with the toy, switching the setting from Latin to English.
Michael hated his name. There were four other Michaels in his class, most of whom went by Mike—a name even duller than Michael. He wanted to be named Striker, like the powerful superhero leader with big muscles and laser vision from his favorite cartoon. He’d asked his parents several times to change his first name to something more exciting, and they conceded he could go by MJ, his first and middle initials, but that was Spider-Man’s girlfriend, and he believed his fiery red hair would not lend itself well to such a nickname.
The boy punched in the correction to his name.
“HI. MY NAME IS STRIK-ER” the mechanical voice buzzed and the boy swelled with confidence. He placed the machine back on the folding table and pretended to laser bad guys in passing cars. “Striker will save us!” he crowed in a deep voice, pretending to be the President who got kidnapped in nearly every other episode.
“Striker, come on,” his father called. The boy laughed uncomfortably at first, believing his father was teasing him, but when he passed Alyah Jenson and her mother by the board game table, the girl shot a peppy, “Hi, Striker,” and his stomach churned. The confused boy only grew more concerned as he reached his bicycle and saw the vanity plate on the back now read STRIKER.
When no one purchased the machine, Mr. Briere put it in a cardboard box and left it outside the local Salvation Army. After a quick wipe down and quality assurance test, which came in the form of seventeen-year-old Tim Rapaport typing “I LIKE MY BOOB-IES BIG,” the language tool was placed on a metal shelf for sale. Tim left early that day as he’d developed some sort of painful growth on his chest.
The machine sat in the store for seven months, with the occasional passerby typing in a single forbidden word like BUTTS or BOOBIES. Jean Briere even passed by it once over Christmas break, remarking that she had the same one when she was a kid. Greg told her firmly that he already knew that before pulling her down another aisle.
Maddie Calvin and her husband, Dave, were expecting their first child and Maddie had taken the idea of nesting to the absolute extreme. It was the former party planner’s moral imperative to fill her home with everything her child would need for the next eighteen years. So the language tool for ages 5+ sat unused in Jaxon Calvin’s toy room, buried beneath an ever-growing mountain of other goodies until Jaxon’s younger twin sisters, Meagan and Mallory, were born and his doting father transformed the toy room into a nursery.
Jaxon, who was now entering kindergarten, prodded at the machine, unable to make it do anything other than beep. This was okay with him as he liked the monotone sound. It reminded him of the digital pangs of the Striker Force theme song and, if he typed fast enough, he could almost recreate the music.
“Oh my goodness, you found a new toy,” Jaxon’s mother smiled through tired eyes. She tilted her head at him and shivered when the vomit drenched burp rag on her shoulder rubbed against her neck; she didn’t possess the energy to wipe it off.
“I remember buying this when you were just a little bean in my belly,” she put on her best show for him, but she was on the verge of collapse. The twins would be up any minute, and her hands would be occupied for another two hours. “Double-amputee” is what Dave had taken to calling her when she was breastfeeding, total unable of reaching anything for herself except for when she’d prod the TV remote with her toes.
Jaxon put the toy down and moved onto something else, ignoring his mother’s outreach.
“MOMMY LOVES YOU,” the spelling machine buzzed at the boy.
“Mommy only loves Meagan and Mallory,” the boy brooded. One of the twins began screaming from his old playroom, the place his mother used to play with him for hours. He waited for his mother to leave him again and attend to her more important children. She smiled at her little boy, letting the baby cry it out from the next room. Five minutes wouldn’t hurt the twins, but it would help Jaxon feel special. She needed to learn to make those trade-offs.
“IT’S ON-LY YOU AND M-E NOW,” the machine buzzed at Jaxon. The crying stopped instantly, and the mother-son duo had their best playtime in months. They did everything: play Simon Says, imagine they were in Striker Force, and even made a fort. It was an afternoon chalked with beautiful moments until Maddie finally went to check on the silent babies.
Jaxon was placed in foster care after his mother institutionalization. Her already obsessive mind not capable of understanding where her infant daughters and husband had gone, why their nursery was just an empty room, and why no one—not even her neighbors or Jaxon—seemed to remember anyone living in their house except the unemployed mother and her son. The hospital possessed no records of the twins’ birth and the bank was equally clueless about how she’d obtained a mortgage with them.
A CPS agent helped Jaxon pack a duffel bag with clothes, shoes, and a few toys to bring to his “temporary housing.” The last thing the terrified child took from his mother’s house was the Speak & Spell Plus, one of the last things his mother had played with. He remembered being angry with her about something when they began to play and her using it to say, “I Love You,” but it all seemed fuzzy.
Leigh was the bully at the foster home on Grove Street. He was fifteen, meaty, and loved to take the other kids’ things. Not because he wanted them, but because he wanted to be challenged. Jaxon didn’t protest much when Leigh stole the Speak & Spell Plus on his first day, he was too heartbroken to be separated from the only parent he’d ever known. It wasn’t until two years into his stay that Jaxon tried to challenge the bully. Mr. and Mrs. Davis, his foster parents, sat him early that Saturday morning and explained to him that his mother had taken her own life.
Leigh lounged comfortably on the couch, changing the words to the Striker Force theme song from “Striker will save us!” to “Striking her anus!” Jaxon march passed the boy, up two flights of stairs to the attic door, and into the forbidden territory of Leigh’s bedroom. The Speak & Spell Plus wasn’t hard to find; Leigh’s bookshelf was like a trophy case of things he’d taken from boys and girls passing through the home. Some kids were only there for a few weeks, but orphans like Leigh and Jaxon, they were lifers.
“MOM-MY LOVES YOU” buzzed the speaker. Jaxon typed the words repeatedly until he heard heavy footsteps climbing the stairs.
“Shit,” the boy cursed as Leigh’s footsteps grew louder. There was nowhere to go, so Jaxon instinctively slammed the door shut and engaged the lock.
“Who the hell is in my room?” roared Leigh, his burly pounding causing the entire attic to shake. Jaxon thought he’d be terrified, but instead, he was angry. Angry that his mother was gone, pissed that his birth father for never tried to find him, and enraged that this asshole had a trophy case filled with awards for emotional torment.
Leigh stopped pounding and instead listened through the door; it was silent for a moment until a few monotone beeps slipped out followed by a mechanical voice: “SUCK MY WEINER IDIOT”
It took only two hard kicks for the door to come crashing down, and before Jaxon knew it, Leigh was on top of him ripping at his belt. Jaxon kicked and screamed as Leigh removed his pants and tugged at his boxers.
“Stop it!” shrieked Jaxon, his vocal cords nearly bursting as he lashed helplessly.
“You wanted this!” a sobbing Leigh screamed, lowering his mouth down onto Jaxon. Mr. Davis appeared in the doorway and ripped Leigh from his victim. The old man did his best to restrain the muscular teen, but his grip was failing.
“Run, Jaxon,” he bellowed. The terrified boy raced out of the house, hiding in the bushes across the way until he saw the police arrive and handcuff his attacker. Leigh screamed in agony, dislocating his shoulder trying to pull away from the office and toward Jaxon.
Smith wasn’t afraid of foster care; she’d been there before and had known it wouldn’t be the last time. When she was allowed back home, things would feel eerily normal: the happy little family would sit in the living room listening to music, Mom and Dad would dance around laughing like teenagers, the bruises mostly faded from her face. The laughter only lasted until the marks healed though, then Dad would let them back out into the world and, eventually, he’d get upset. He’d accuse Mom of laughing too hard at a waiter’s joke or being out at the grocery store for too long. Then the bruises would be back, and Smith would be gone again.
This was her first time at Grove Street, but the cookie-cutter foster mother seemed nice enough. There was only one other kid in the house, a teenage boy named Jaxon who didn’t say much. Mrs. Davis said he’d been with her for almost a decade, but after noticing the panic in the second-grader’s eyes, assured her she wouldn’t be there that long.
Jaxon kept his distance, hanging out mostly in his room like usual, but on Thursday evening the familiar rally of Striker Will Save Us rose up through the floor, and he couldn’t help but join Smith in the living room. The cartoon had been cancelled soon after he’d arrived at Grove Street, but Smith was the proud owner of the Striker Force Season Three DVD Set, or disc two of four at least, and would watch it whenever she got the chance. The two watched episode six in complete silence, grinning instead of laughing at the funny parts, keeping their private space as strangers tend to do. It wasn’t until they both began humming the theme song during episode seven that they began to loosen up.
“Remember the one where he goes to space?” Smith asked nervously, prodding her temporary housemate for interest in engaging.
“Which time? When he goes to the dinosaur planet or when he gets stuck inside the booby-trapped spaceship?” he tried to clarify, tapping into his encyclopedic knowledge of the show.
“He goes to a dinosaur planet?!” Smith jumped excitedly, smiling through her missing front tooth for the first time since her arrival. Jaxon regaled the young fan with stories from the later seasons she’s yet to discover and details about the Striker action figures and secret base his mother had given him.
He wondered if this is how it would have been had his baby siblings been real and not a delusion. Smith was about the age the twins would have been. It would have been nice to have a family. He rubbed his eye, preempting any tears that might swell up at the thought of a family and the last time he saw his mother acting normal. He excused himself, returning a few minutes later from his bedroom with an old toy.
“My mom gave me this when I was little,” he smiled while rhythmically jabbing the rubbery buttons, “do you hear it?”
“Oh cool, it sounds just like the theme!” Smith giggled at her new friend.
“When evil strikes first, he’ll strike last: Striker will save us! Striker will save us!” Smith and Jaxon sang the theme song and pretended to fight invisible villains all around the living room. Mrs. Davis peered in from the kitchen, it wasn’t often the house was filled with laughter and it filled her with joy. Mr. Davis would have been so glad to see Jaxon make a friend.
“HERE YOU TRY IT,” Jaxon spelled and the machine spoke, he slid the Speak & Spell Plus into Smith’s hands and pointing out how to operate it. She carefully typed out the reprise of the song, Jaxon correcting her misspellings as she went.
The girl’s pointer finger was coming down on the SPEAK button, when a loud knock and familiar voice stole her attention.
“I need to see my daughter,” Smith’s mother cried, bursting in through the front door.
“Ma’am, you’re not allowed to be here right now. Leave immediately or I’m going to have to make a call,” Mrs. Davis threatened, trying to steer the woman out the front door.
“Please, I need to take her—he’s going to kill us,” she cried out as the front windows of the house filled with headlights followed by the violent cacophony of a door slamming.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Jeanie? Think you could run out on me!?” roared the man as he worked his way up the porch.
Jean can’t do anything but shiver. Years of abusive programming has left her frozen in the face of Greg’s domineering rage. Smith watches her father smear a yellow slip of paper into her mother’s wincing face, her back shoved against the wall.
“Who is it?” he demanded, “Who did you think you could leave me for?”
“No one,” whimpered Jean as Mrs. Davis tries to pull the man back, “There’s no one.”
“That’s right: no one! You’re min—” Jaxon’s slender teenage frame crashes headlong into Greg’s muscular torso and stops dead like Wile E Coyote hitting a trick wall.
“You little fucknut. Mind your own goddamn business,” he snarls, stepping forward and slamming the heel of his Doc Marten boot down on Jaxon’s right hand. Jean flinches, but part of her is relieved the snapping is coming from someone else’s body and not her own.
“Smith!” Greg calls into the house, “Daddy’s here, don’t worry.”
Mrs. Davis had disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a butcher knife. “Leave this home,” the skinny widow shrieked, shakily pointing the knife at the attacker.
Greg laughed, shoving his wife into the wall and turning to face Mrs. Davis. He stopped just out of range and smiled at her, “Come get me, Grannie!”
The woman lunged haphazardly at her assailant; he sidestepped her and plucked the weapon from her hand. The woman tripped over Jaxon’s legs and fell onto the ground alongside him.
“Let’s go home,” Greg whispered to his wife, the tone was almost romantic, his left hand leaning against the wall behind Jean’s head.
“Please, just let me go,” she trembled. “I don’t want to go home with you,” her face turned into the wall, her voice drowned in snot and tears, “I can’t…I can’t…I can’t.”
Greg adjusted his grip on the knife, but didn’t notice of Smith, who was still in the center of the living room with the Speak and Spell Plus squeezed tightly against her chest. As her father drew back the knife, her grip tightened.
“STRIK-ER WILL SAVE US,” the robotic voice erupted from her chest. Before Greg could even turn his head, Smith watched as a blur of red hair burst into the foyer. The man looked confused but, seeing the knife and bodies on the floor, did not hesitate to lunge forward and seize Greg’s arm. The two fought, growling violently at one another. Greg was muscular and agile, but the redheaded stranger had about a hundred pounds on him. The stranger pinned Greg beneath his weight, but the blade slashing wildly. Finally, the knife finds its way into the hero’s side and his grip loosens.
Greg struggles to escape the weight. The heavyset man feels this, and with his remaining strength, leans forward trapping the arms beneath him. Greg screams in rage, biting at the stranger’s neck; he cries out in pain but holds steady.
“Daddy,” Smith stands over her vampiric father whose face is half covered in blood and a flop of red hair.
“Smithie,” he smiles up.
“Run away,” the stranger weakly begs.
The girl did not listen, kneeling on the floor above their heads. Greg grinned a bloody smile at his little girl until he saw the look in her eyes and Speak and Spell Plus raised over her head. Her innocent fingers held it tightly as she smashed it down into his smile – slamming it again and again until buttons and teeth explode from the tool and its target.
EMTs treated the redhead’s wounds while he explained to an officer that he was sitting in his house five blocks away, eating pizza and watching a movie, when a sudden burst of adrenaline rushed through him and found himself racing into the Davis’ foyer. Several witnesses claimed to have seen the hefty man rocketing down the street at impossible speeds – almost like he was flying.
Smith sat on the Davis’ front porch fiddling with the broken plastic casing of the Speak and Spell Plus, running her fingers along the holes where the buttons once lived.
“Sorry, I broke your mom’s toy,” she whispered to Jaxon. The teen wrapped one arm over her shoulder as if he was comforting his own little sister. Jean sat silently on the other side, still shaken.
“Are you folks okay?” the redhead asked as the EMTs guided his stretcher out of the house.
“I think so,” said Jaxon, his broken hand turning blacker by the second.
“Your name’s Jean, right?” the man winced as the pain crept up. Smith nodded for her mother, and the man continued, “I’m Striker, our dads are friends. I don’t know if you remember me.”
“Thank you for saving us,” Smith said politely, looking up from the broken toy.
“Yeah,” nodded the man who had run away from every conflict that ever faced him before tonight, “thank you for saving me too…at the end there.”
Smith sat quietly, running her fingers along the shattered edges of the permanently black screen, wishing for something better.