Wake up. Go to school. Homework. Video games. Help Mom with dinner. Dinner. Video games or reading until bed. Bed. Repeat. Kurt Richards could have gone through his daily routine with his eyes half-closed—and he usually did. To him, it seemed as if he and everyone else was a slave to schedules. Even his sixth grade teachers at Greenfield Middle seemed to go through their curriculum as if on autopilot. The only person who seemed bubbly at all was Kurt’s 14-year-old brother, Sammy, who was still too excited about being in high school to care that life was just one long never ending, seemingly never changing routine. Kurt wished his life was more like his books or video games, but it seemed as if those characters at least had opportunities. Nothing ever happened to him. Tedium wore him down; he felt as if he was always half-asleep, and though he never said it out loud, Kurt wanted desperately for something to happen—anything—to snap him out of it.
Kurt typed the last few sentences on his book report for Treasure Island and rested his head against the screen of his desktop. He sighed and clicked print. The sooner he had this paper in hand, the sooner he could get back to Starcraft.
The printer blinked, but his report stayed on the computer screen. Kurt checked the paper and the ink. They were both fine. He turned the printer off and on again and sent his paper to be printed, but the printer still just blinked as if nothing had happened.
“Sammy!” Kurt hollered. “My printer isn’t working!”
Sam poked his head in the door, his cheek full of apple. “Yeah?” he swallowed. “Have you checked all the connections?” They took a few moments to jiggle every cord they could find and force them deeper into their sockets. Still no response. Sammy saved Kurt’s paper and cancelled the line of print jobs. “Hang on,” he said, “I can usually get this.”
Kurt flopped on his bed and started to thumb a Gameboy to death while Sammy continued to fight with the computer. After a few moments, Kurt heard the printer finally fire up.
“Temperamental piece of junk,” Sammy chuckled. “But at least it’s working now.” He wadded up a piece of paper he had printed off and tossed it, making a basket in Kurt’s garbage. “It should behave. Good luck,” said as he went out the door.
Kurt mumbled a thanks, but didn’t turn away from his game. He played until he fell asleep.
His mom must have checked on him, because Kurt didn’t remember getting into the covers or putting his Gameboy next to his bed. But when his alarm went off and his head popped off the bed, all he remembered was that he still needed his book report.
Several papers were on the out tray of his printer. Had Sammy printed off his report? Kurt picked up the first page.
Hi, was all it said.
He tossed it. I’m better now, another page said.
Kurt squinted at the paper for a second before tossing it also.
Thanks. A third page had printed on it. Kurt shuddered.
His half-on, bored brain made a hurried connection, and because he was only eleven, he entertained it: The printer was talking to him. Sammy would not have used three whole pages to print off such simple phrases.
Well, he had to go to school. He printed off his report while he dressed and grabbed the pages as he went downstairs. The last page that printed was not part of his report, however.
Not bad. It read. But it’s a little boring. This is Treasure Island, after all. I didn’t fix your spelling mistakes. Or your grammar. My guess is a B+.
Kurt gave his book report that day. He got a B+.
When Kurt came home from school he didn’t immediately try to get his homework done as usual. Instead, he went to his printer. It looked like any other printer. Canon Pixma iP 1600, it said on its cover. His parents had gotten this and the computer together as a Christmas gift for him when he was about nine. Apparently with schools getting the way they were, so dependent on technology, kids needed their own these days. Sammy had one too. This printer was over two years old and had never shown any personality before. Maybe he had imagined it in his desire for something out of the ordinary. He poked the printer a few times. Nothing. He turned it off and then turned it on. A paper started to print off.
Kurt jumped when he saw the words. “You stop it!” he shouted back. His whole body shook. He knew that printers didn’t talk, and yet…and yet…Kurt wanted an excuse to talk to it more. He wanted the printer to talk; it was something. He could feel his insides stretch and blink with the effort of trying to understand, grasp, and be part of this newness.
But at this rate, his mother would get after him if he went through a whole piece of paper every three-word phrase.
“You are wasting paper! Do you hear me?” Kurt poked his printer gingerly several times more. He was nearly positive that the printer couldn’t hurt him if it got mad. “You cannot use a whole piece of paper for two words! What are you doing?”
The printer made a sound from its insides that sounded to Kurt like a growl as it started to print again.
I said quit that! And if you want to say something to me, you have to print it off. I can’t hear.
Kurt sighed, sat at his computer, and wrote a few lines: I said you’re using up too much paper—and so am I. Why haven’t you ever spoken before?
What are you talking about? The printer whined as its next page came out. I just woke up. And you’re the one who puts the paper in, genius, though I guess I can’t expect much from someone who misspelled ‘tresure’ twice in his report and never caught it. But hey, if you re-insert (that means, ‘put in again’) the paper, I won’t print over the same lines.
Kurt wrote back: I know what re-insert means! OK. You’re weird but…OK. So you’ve been asleep all this time? And you just “decided” to wake up?
He “re-inserted” the same piece of paper that the printer had just used and printed his words a few lines down. He leaned back in his chair, brow furrowed. This was more excitement than he’d had for as long as he could remember. At least this was definitely not routine.
I haven’t been as asleep as you’ve been, the printer responded. Kurt reloaded the paper and began to probe it for more specific answers, but the printer wouldn’t comment on the ‘sleep’ statement anymore. It had plenty of other things to say, though.
Kurt spent the next hour becoming better acquainted with his computer printer. He learned that when the printer was connected to the computer, it could browse the Internet. Apparently the computer itself wasn’t interested in talking to people. The only thing the printer confessed as far as why it was interacting now was that after it had been fixed it had woken up and felt like talking.
By the way, the printer asked as their conversation ended that day, do you have good virus protection?
I think so. Why?
Just curious. Thanks. Just leave me on tonight. I was gonna chat with the desktop.
Kurt left the printer on and went to bed that night with a tingling feeling anticipation in his gut for the next day. Normally he never felt like that except on Christmas Eve. The sooner he fell asleep, the sooner tomorrow would come. He smiled as he slept.
The next morning Kurt felt as though it was the first time he’d ever ridden his bike to school. With thoughts of a speaking printer in the back of his mind, he paid more attention to how nice the weather was that particular spring day and how bright the air was. Pedaling was effortless and he felt as if he could ride his bike forever. As he neared the school, he noticed a car struggling to parallel park in the street next to the school. He stopped and signaled the car to let it know how far it could go back and where to stop.
His teacher poked her head out of the car after he was done. “I park here nearly every morning and I always have trouble. Thanks so much for stopping to help!”
Kurt was surprised that he’d never noticed before. “You’re welcome,” he shrugged, hoping no one would see him and call him a teacher’s pet, but still, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been thanked.
Okay, so you might want to get better virus protection, the printer told him when he got back from school.
Have you ever heard of the Black Plague?
A little in my world history class. I guess it was some bad disease that killed off most of the people in Europe.
Apparently it is also a pretty bad virus that can leech all your information and gum up the insides of your computer—they’ll all crash. If it gets this computer, it will probably get all the other computers in your house…or street…or city.
No, I’m joking. YES. Of course. Do you think I make these things up for fun? If the computer goes, I’ll be useless.
So all I need is good virus protection?
Hopefully. It seems like this virus can get around most protections. I might be able to do something about it from here, though, as long as I’m still hooked up. Your computer is really freaked out, I’m just trying to calm it down. We’ve been pals for awhile. I’d hate to see anything happen to it.
Kurt stared at his computer. It certainly didn’t look freaked out. It just looked—like a machine. No expression, no voice, no spirit. Surely all appliances didn’t have speaking capability. If people knew that artificial intelligence was real, the effects would be…would be…well, big. But Kurt really didn’t care how or why his printer was talking, he was just glad it was. His routine had been shattered; that’s what mattered.
“Hey, Mom? Do we have good virus protection?”
Mom gave him a curious look. “Yes. We got a good deal to protect all the computers in our house. Why do you ask?”
“Um… I just got this e-mail from—from Craig about a new virus that’s supposed to get around the usual defenses. We might want to upgrade.”
“Well, I’ll check. I wouldn’t be too worried. It would be bad business for our Internet protection company if they let something get through. Just make sure your computer is scanned if you’re worried.”
Just a little worried, Kurt thought. But apparently it’s the computer that’s really freaking out. But he didn’t tell his Mom that.
Everything is up to date with the virus protection. I don’t know what else I can do from here. Kurt typed that night.
Okay. The printer hummed a bit and sounded like it was sighing. It’s been fun to talk to someone besides the computer.
Yeah…I like it too. Thanks for waking up, or whatever.
No problem. Just don’t fall asleep again, OK?
? Kurt typed.
But the printer just hummed and didn’t respond to his question mark. Kurt left it on and tried to stay awake for as long as he could, wondering what the printer meant, feeling a little worried, but he fell asleep before midnight.
When Kurt woke up the next morning, he got dressed and went to ask the printer how things were going with the Black Plague virus. He noticed that the “on” button wasn’t green—but he hadn’t turned the printer off. He hurriedly turned on his computer. It flickered to life without a problem, and Kurt exhaled in relief. He pushed the “on” button for the printer several times without response. Kurt’s chest instantly filled with dread.
Hey, printer, are you OK? Come on, wake up, he typed quickly.
He pressed print. The printer did nothing.
“Sam! Hey, Sammy!” Kurt hollered. Kurt raced to Sammy’s room. Sammy was still in bed. Kurt bounced him up and down on the mattress. “Hey, Sam! My printer’s broken! You have to come and fix it!”
Sam mumbled something. “…off me…” was all Kurt heard.
Kurt ran back to his room and flipped the lid of the printer up.
The inside of the printer was completely gummed and black—as if its ink cartridge had exploded. The ink cartridges didn’t even slide over. A last piece of paper was jammed inside.Kurt carefully pulled the crumpled paper out. It was splattered with ink and torn, but Kurt could just make out some of the words.
Computer—something Kurt couldn’t make out—safe. Stay awake, Kurt. It’s better that I’m asleep than you. Don’t fall . . .
There was more, or there might have been more, but the paper was so splotched, wrinkled, and torn that Kurt couldn’t make anything else out. He sat on his bed, feeling dazed.
“The Black Plague killed my printer,” he whispered.
Sammy finally stumbled into his doorway, rubbing his eyes. “OK, so what are you freaking out about? Do you have a paper due? You can print it off on my printer if it’s an emergency, for crying out loud.” He noticed the blackened printer. “Whoa! This thing, like, totally self-destructed or something. It’s completely fried.”
Kurt didn’t seem to hear his brother. “No,” he corrected himself. “My printer killed the Black Plague. It sacrificed itself.”
Sammy gave his little brother a weird look. “Are you kidding me? This thing is the black plague.” He touched a corner of the lid and rubbed the ink between his fingers. “Well, your birthday is only two months away, right? Maybe Mom and Dad will get you a new one.”
Kurt sighed. “This was a good printer,” he said.
Sammy completely misinterpreted what Kurt meant by, “good”. “Yeah, whatever. You can use, mine, all right? Don’t let the ink get everywhere. We should chuck it. “
“The printer talked to me. It printed off things it wanted to say to me. It woke up after you fixed it last time.” Kurt said matter-of-factly.
Sammy laughed, really laughed. “Are you kidding? I told it to print off a few words when I fixed it that one day. Let me guess, it said hi? That was me, doofus.” And he laughed again as he stumbled away.
“It said a bit more than ‘hi’,” Kurt said under his breath.
The desktop computer shuddered, and Kurt visualized his computer sobbing.
Kurt felt pretty low at school, but he was still awake enough to help a fellow sixth-grader who didn’t know how to properly use the vending machine, and his teacher smiled brightly when she saw him as if he was, “such a kind young man”. Kurt felt a little better.
That night, after showing his parents what had happened to his printer, he told them he was going to go throw it in the garbage outside, but instead he gave it a proper burial in the backyard behind the corner garden that hadn’t been planted in a few years.
“Thanks for waking me up,” he whispered as he gently patted the dirt flat with his shovel.
His black lab, Licorice, as his mom had named him, nuzzled his hand and danced around him. Kurt hadn’t played with his dog for a long time, and Licorice always acted starved for attention. Kurt sat on the back porch and threw an old chewed baseball a few times for the eager dog, just thinking and watching the sunset.
“Maybe I made it all up,” he said as his dog dropped the ball at his feet. “Maybe I subconsciously wrote the things the printer said because I wanted something to happen. Do you think?”
His dog shook his head, throwing a little bit of drool from its jaws.
“Because printers don’t really talk, huh? I know that.”
The dog shook his head again.
Kurt cocked his head at Licorice, looking at him hard. He held up the slobbery baseball. “Do you want me to throw this?”
The dog nodded his head eagerly, jumping up and down with apparent excitement.
“You understand what I’m saying?”
This time, Kurt could have sworn, his dog rolled his eyes.
“How come you never—,” he paused, “nodded your head before?”
“You were sleeping,” Licorice said, and snapped the ball out of Kurt’s raised hand and ran off gleefully. He dropped the ball once and turned back to the stunned boy. “And everyone knows printers don’t talk.” He snatched the ball up and raced away again as if daring Kurt to catch him.