They're so innocent at this age. I remember trying to explain it to him anyway, even if he didn't entirely understand the logic behind it. To tell you the truth, I'm not entirely sure that I do. I told him that some places have rules, and that the people who make these rules have their reasons. In the case of an apartment building, most likely a snub nosed landlord who can't stand the thought of dogs barking at night or pee stains on their precious cheap carpet. I remember the look on his little face, his big brown eyes wide in questioning wonder.
"I don't understand, if this is where we live, why can't we do whatever we want here?" I smiled, yet at the same time I couldn't help but feel saddened by his words. We should be able to do what we want, and yet this is the best I can do for him. I'm a single parent, and unfortunately my minimum wage salary won't allow me to afford a house for my family. But over the years my son and I have learned to make due. I patted his shoulder and told him that we would speak of getting a dog one day. I gave that sweet, brown-eyed boy my word. One day I would get him a dog that would change his life. And eventually, I did. Oh, did I...
Christmas was fast approaching, and as was tradition with our small family of two, my son and I were looking at toys online. It was like window shopping, except what my boy didn't know was that every year "Santa" would end up getting him one of the toys he saw. Usually, this translated to the one that got him the most excited. We sat there at the computer screen, my son on my lap as the homepage to one of his favorite toy stores popped up. Instantly, he was elated, pointing at the various toys and the colorful lettering sprawled all across the site. We scrolled down. There was an interesting line up that year, including the new figurines from the Marvel series, racetracks, and several big-eyed plush bears, which looked a bit too freaky for my tastes. Feeling in the Christmas spirit, I clicked on the search engine for the site. D-O-G I typed.
Instantly, over a thousand search results flooded forth. My boy of course was delighted to see page after page of interesting and cute puppy toys popping up on the screen in front of him, but none of them prompted that very special reaction that I was looking for in him. That, "it's the best toy ever" response, the one that I would plan his secret Christmas gift around. We were on the last page, and I was about to give up hope, especially when the results became more centered around toys which simply had the word "dog" in their title, rather than being actual dog-related toys, such as Barbie dolls that came with paw print t-shirts, or puppy pajamas. Just when I was about to give up, I came to the very last toy. It was a green plush puppy, sitting upright like a teddy bear. It's expression was bright and lively, and each of its paws had a different symbol on them, as well as two interlocking orange hearts on its stomach. It also had a name tag, shaped like a bone. On the tag read the dog's name: SCOUT.
Along with the picture, was a list of interesting features the toy had. I was amazed by what this simple, inexpensive toy was capable of. Apparently, Scout came with a connection cable, that would allow you to input your child's name, favorite foods, and much more. The toy also claimed to be able to encourage children to interact along with it. Huh, I thought. Can it really do that? I mean, talking toys are one thing, but a toy that actually encourages the child to want to talk back? Sounded interesting at the very least. I looked down to see what my son's reaction was. I didn't have to look long. His eyes instantly became transfixed upon that little, oddly colored pup. I knew that look. Even before he began bouncing up and down and pointing frantically to the computer screen, I had already decided what he was getting for Christmas that year.
The big day finally arrived, and my son wobbled out of bed and down the hall towards the beautifully decorated fake tree we had put up in the living room. There weren't that many packages under it, although lord knows that I had tried my best in saving up as much money as I could in order to make all of his holiday wishes come true. I'll never forget the look on my son's face when he saw our tree. There he was, in his rocket-themed pajamas and green bunny slippers, clutching his teddy bear and staring, just staring with the utmost awe, and our simple, yet vibrant tree. He rushed to my side and hugged me.
"Merry Christmas!" He cheered, and began digging into his loot. I held my breath as he opened the last box, marked, as I always did with his special toy, "From Santa". The look on his little face rivaled that of his expression when he had seen the tree, as he pulled out the little green puppy named Scout. It was an odd toy. Not in the fact that it was green, or even the fact that you had to program it via internet before it would even work. Maybe this sounds perfectly insane, but I swear that something wasn't right about its eyes. They seemed... Almost too good to belong to a toy. Sure, they were stitched and adorable, eyes that you would expect to see on a child's plaything. But there was just something in how detailed they were that really stood out to me. But what did I care? My son finally had his dog.
He immediately suggested that I program it, and I of course nodded and complied. I booted up the internet, and plugged in the USB cable; one end to my computer, and the other to Scout. I carefully read the instructions and typed in the web address. A screen popped up. There was a picture of Scout, as well as the female version of the toy, Violet. I remember chuckling to myself at the image, because instead of showing the toys, there were two poorly photoshopped puppies on the page. It looked as though someone had literally taken a picture of two cute puppies, and used the flood fill tool to color one green, and the other purple, Violet's color. I couldn't help but chuckle. My son could have done better. Furthermore, the site itself seemed very... Sketchy.
It looked like one of those freebie sites made by young teens, with its poor spelling and grammar, and simple background and tabs. Definitely NOT what one would expect from a major toy company. But they had my money, and I had their toy, so I wasn't about to complain. The first screen popped up.
"Welcome!" It read, "To your new life with Scout." Cute. I thought. Towards the lower right of the screen, there was a tab marked NEXT. I clicked it. The next page popped up. It asked me to input my son's information, ie: his name, favorite food, favorite color, and favorite animal. I did so. The NEXT tab popped up again, and I clicked it. The next page requested that I choose 5 of my son's favorite songs, which I did. The last page popped up.
It read, "All done! Enjoy the rest of your life with Scout!"
This message was a little strange. The rest of your life? Was this supposed to be a cute joke, as if Scout really was a real dog that would be sharing my son's life with him? I mean, truth be told, it was a toddler toy. Chances were that in a few short years, my son would outgrow it, and his interest would be taken up by some other toy. Or possibly a real dog by then. But to say that my son would be spending the rest of his life with Scout, now that was a bit weird. I unplugged the toy and brought it back to my son. I turned it on, and handed it to him. He pressed a paw, and the toy came to life.
"Hi, Adam!" It greeted him, its collar flashing with a cheery green light. My son almost rolled over in surprise. He looked up at me, eyes glassy and wide.
"He knows my name!" I nodded, tears of happiness filling my proud eyes.
"Yes he does, son. Yes he does."
"I know more than that! I know your favorite color, food, and animal too, Adam! We'll be friends forever!" the toy continued. Funny thing was, Adam hadn't actually pressed his paw this time. Scout just said that on his own. I shook my head. Apparently, today's technology was beyond me.
As the weeks passed, Adam began to play with Scout progressively more and more. He would take the toy everywhere with him. To the store, to bed, he even tried to take it in the bath once or twice. About the only place that I didn't allow him to take Scout, was the kitchen table. We have strict rules about toys at the table. My son is a picky eater, and distraction is the last thing he needs at mealtime. One Thursday night, Adam and I were eating dinner. Scout was around the corner, in the laundry basket. He was getting played with so much and so often, that I had to wash the thing at least every other week. We were having chicken and peas for dinner. Adam likes chicken alright, but he's never been big on peas. That particular evening, he was rolling them around on his plate, and then squishing them into a thick, green paste.
"Adam, aren't you going to eat those?" I offered, pointing at his plate. He shook his head violently.
"No! I hate peas!" He proclaimed.
"Come on, Adam." I coaxed. "They'll make you grow big and strong."
"NO!" He yelled at the top of his lungs. I flinched and then stared at him.
"Adam, eat your peas," I commanded, losing my patience. Suddenly, from around the corner, a familiar voice could be heard.
"Adam doesn't like peas." The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I slowly got up from the table and walked over to where Scout was laying on the pile of dirty laundry. I reached for the toy and turned it over. I sighed heavily when I saw that the switch was on. I turned it off and went back to the dinner table. My son looked at me and grinned.
"Scout's right, I don't like peas."
"Just because you don't like them, doesn't mean that you don't have to eat them. They're good for you." I reasoned. Adam shook his head.
"Scout says that if I don't want to do something, then I shouldn't." I was shocked by his comeback. Usually, Adam was such a polite and respectful boy. It wasn't like him to talk back if he didn't get his way. I thought about what he had said. Did that toy really tell him not to do things he didn't want to? It seemed pretty far-fetched for several reasons. First of all, that was a terrible lesson to teach children, would a company who designed toys for toddlers really install such a bad moral into their product? Secondly, maybe it's just me, I have always been a bit of a technophobe, but was such a thing really possible? I mean, I had installed in Scout Adam's favorite things. I had never mentioned the things he didn't like. How did Scout know that Adam didn't like peas? I was beginning to wonder more and more about my son's new favorite plaything. But the worst was yet to come.
The months passed, and soon I found myself preparing Adam for school. He was really excited to be making new friends, as the only kid he played with was our next door neighbor's son, Jim. Jim's mother and I had become close over the years, as we were both single parents. We regularly did everything together, our two sons tagging along, laughing and playing in the back seat of the car. On this particular outing, we were school shopping. Adam, as always, had Scout with him, lovingly pinned under his arm. He was joking and talking with Jim, as we made our way through the expanse of the department store. After a few hours of shopping, we all stopped for lunch at the food court and Jim's mother, Carol, listened with keen interest as Adam began to show off Scout to Jim.
"Oh, you got him one of those Scout toys, eh?"
"Yes, he can't leave home without it." I joked. Carol smiled, continuing to watch as Adam pushed the paws of his toy, listening to the clever phrases Scout delivered.
"Adam loves to play with Jim." The toy remarked. Carol smiled at me, a look of amazement in her wide eyes.
"No way! You programmed Jim's name in there for him? I mean, I had heard that the Scout toys were programmable, but wow, that's amazing!" I was as surprised as Carol, but for other reasons. I had never programmed Jim's name into Scout. Because I had never had the option.
"Yeah... It's an amazing little toy..." I managed weakly.
"Scout's not a toy! He's a real dog...MY dog!" I stared at Adam, whom had just raised his voice to me. My son had never done that before, he just wasn't a disobedient or rude kid. He also wasn't the sort of kid to have a rampant imagination. And as much as he loved Scout, my Adam would have never referred to a little green puppy toy as "real."
"Well, you could have fooled me. I'm convinced that I need to buy one for Jim now too!" Carol laughed. Again, Scout piped up.
"I love making new friends!" This prompted Carol to laugh some more.
"That's amazing! They must have put some sort of voice recognition software in there or something!" She looked at me, as giddy as the children sitting across from us. "We HAVE to check out the toy section. I'm getting Jimmy one of those, today!"
About a week after the school year had begun, Carol and I were having lunch together at my house. Adam and Jim were both away at school, and we were visiting as we often did, just hours before the final bell would ring and we would have to go and pick them up.
"I wanted to ask you about something." Carol finally spoke. I could tell from the moment she knocked on my door that afternoon that something was wrong.
"Yeah, what is it?"
"I was wondering if you could help me program Scout. I followed the instructions on the internet site, but I think I may have made a mistake."
"Oh? Why is that?" I asked.
"Well, you know how Adam's Scout knows Jim's name? Well, I don't know how to program specific information like that. It never gave me the option." I shuddered a bit. I didn't know how to tell Carol this. Sure, she was my best friend, but would she really believe me, even if I was telling the truth?
"I had never been given the option either; Scout just started doing those things on his own." Carol, looked at me in a very strange way.
"On his own? How is that possible? He's a toy."
"I can't explain it, he just starts commenting whenever Adam and I are talking. Like he did at the department store that time. I didn't input Jim's name, Scout just KNEW it..." I cringed, expecting my friend to laugh in my face. But she just smiled and shrugged.
"You know, I do have one theory. Did you buy that thing on the internet?" I nodded. "Ah! This might explain everything then. Show me the site where you bought Scout."
"Why?" I asked, growing curious.
"Well, I have heard that sometimes you can find special edition models of these toys online annually. You bought Scout for Adam around Christmas. Maybe the toy was a promotional item." I felt a wave of relief sweep over my body at her words. That was probably it. That HAD to be it. I had been jumping to conclusions, making mountains out of mole hills, and such. I need to stop watching so many horror movies... I told myself. I booted up the computer for Carol and typed in the name of the website where I had initially purchased Scout. I waited, as the page was taking an oddly long time to load. When it finally did open, the page was all white, with a simple message. It read:
ERROR 403 FORBIDDEN
I sat back in the chair and looked at Carol, her glasses mirroring the computer screen.
"Huh. Well, that's not good. Maybe you could try the site you used to load Scout's USB information." I got up and retrieved Scout from his spot atop Adam's bed and re-plugged the USB cord. I attached the other end to my computer, and waited. Finally, the loading page opened. Carol took one look at the primitive site and shook her head.
"No, no. This is wrong. The page I accessed had cartoon puppies on it. These...these are just stupid. There's only one explanation for this. Your Scout must be a fake."
"A fake?" I retorted, a bit angry in the knowledge that I had paid full price for a cheap imitation.
"Yes. It happens. No-name companies try to sell bootlegged toys and games on the internet in order to make a quick buck. Explains why the site was deleted, you probably weren't the only one to get ripped off." Carol looked up at the clock. "Well, its almost time to head out to get the boys, we can take care of this later." She headed back into the other room and grabbed her purse. I slowly slid away from the computer screen, still displaying those poorly designed painted puppies. I unplugged Scout from the computer and took him back to Adam's room. I set him down on the bed and frowned. If this was just a cheap knockoff, why was it more advanced than Carol's copy of the genuine toy? What was going on here? The more I thought about it, the more concerned I became. The website hadn't merely been deleted. It had been forbidden; as if it had once housed pornography, or been a selling point for illegal drugs. Something about that website had been alarming enough to get it forbidden. The question was, what exactly?
After the reveal of Adam's Scout being counterfeit, things begin to get really weird. Over the next couple of days, I noticed that the toy's voice was becoming progressively deeper, and distorted. It almost sounded as if the batteries needed to be changed, but even after I did so, the toy still continued to talk that way. I asked Adam if he had gotten the toy wet outside, or damaged it in any other way. He shook his head, and told me that he had been playing with Scout the same as usual, being extremely careful and loving with it, as he always was. Late one evening, after Adam had gone to bed, I was cleaning up the living room, and I noticed that he had left Scout out. I thought that this was strange, as he usually took the toy to bed with him. I shrugged and picked up the toy. What happened next, was something that I desperately want to forget.
"You should mind your own business..." Scout said, in a very, very clear voice. I nearly dropped the toy as it said this. I knew in an instant what it was referring to. That fake site that Carol and I had stumbled across. I stood there, paralyzed in terror, and Scout spoke again.
"Adam shouldn't be around you anymore. You're nosy and bad. I'm going to take him away from you." I screamed and threw down Scout, and the toy fell silent again. That toy, that horrible, demonic thing... Was after my son. I had to save him.
The next morning, I walked my son down to the bus stop. I was exhausted. After what had happened the night before, I hadn't been able to get any sleep. I watched as the yellow school bus pulled into view. Adam was very excited. Today was show-and-tell at his elementary school, and he was finally going to be able to take Scout to school with him. Or, so he thought. As the bus pulled to a halt, I took my beloved boy by the hand.
"Adam, I don't know how to tell you this... But Scout can't come with you to show-and-tell." Adam backed away, clutching the toy to his chest. He had a horrible look of resentment in his eyes that I shall never forget.
"What?! Why not!?" He bleated. I gently tried to pry the toy from his vice-like grasp.
"He's just not safe anymore honey: he needs to go." Adam pulled his hand away and stared at me. The look in his eyes disturbed me. He was looking at me as if I were a complete stranger.
"Scout is my best friend! He told me that you would try and ruin our friendship!" I stared at him.
"He told you? Adam, what do you mean he told you?" I tried to comfort my son, but by this point, he was hysterical. He backed away from me, still holding Scout.
"I'm gonna run away and live with Scout. I won't let you take him from me!" Adam declared, backing out into the street.
"ADAM!" I screamed, mortified by what was happening. With the school bus in the way, I couldn't see the oncoming car as it illegally sped past. It hit Adam, slamming his tiny body to the side of the road. The other parents rushed to my side as I ran to see if my boy was okay. Even the bus driver got off the bus, and began to dial for an ambulance. But it was too late. My son was dead. Scout was lying beside him; his battery pack had been crushed under the tires. The battery pack crackled and garbled, until finally, Scout fell silent alongside Adam.
Scout, did indeed encourage my child to act along with him, and he continued to do so; "For the rest of his life..."