Conversations With and About My Electric Toothbrush
by Derek Zumsteg
This story is licensed under a Creative Commons license, available here. You are, to sum up, free to copy, distribute, perform, fold, spindle, mutilate, or otherwise make any derivative work you wish as long as you attribute the work to me, the work is noncommerical, and derivative works must be similarly licensed.
“I read an interesting forum post last night,” my electric toothbrush told me over its low burr.
“Thiff ouff thew be thood,” I said through my mouth of foam.
“It was!” he replied. “Using readily available components, Monkeymonkey turned his Intellibrush into a milk frother.”
I spit into the sink and set my toothbrush in its white ceramic charger. “What would I do with a milk frother?”
“Make cappucinos,” my toothbrush said, with a hint of resignation, as I rinsed and spit again.
“I don’t drink cappucinos,” I said.
“You could start!”
“I read a good joke last night.”
“Noth johkes,” I managed. Laughing while brushing your teeth means a wide cleanup area and a light froth of toothpaste and spit doesn’t come up easy.
“You’re going to love this one.”
“I thed nhoth johkes!”
“Two men are waiting in line at the clinic.”
I stopped brushing. “No jokes while we’re brushing.”
“I can’t believe you broke the cycle.”
“I remember where we we are.”
“So do I, but that’s not the point. I’m just trying to make your life a little brighter.”
“Aren’t you supposed to check for updates, manual revisions, toothbrush-centered user communities, stuff like that?”
“Uh, it was in the ‘General Discussion’ section.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“We should get back to the cycle. I believe we were on your up left lateral incisor.”
“How would I know that my replacement would do as good a job?” I said.
“I’m not falling for that,” he replied in a sharp tone. “I’d take responsibility for training my replacement. I’d even offer to look over their reports and supervise.”
“How are my gums, anyway?”
“They’re great!” he chirped. “I was a little concerned about the outside of 15, but it turns out it was just irritated by that popcorn husk we got out of there, and it’s back to normal. Your whole mouth is in excellent health. It’s a little boring, to be completely honest.”
“I could eat more candy.”
“No, no, don’t do that,” he said. “But a toothbrush wants some challenge. Something to aspire to. I remember back when I first cleaned your mouth, and the gums were sensitive and bleeding, all 3,2,3,3,3,3...”
“Those were the days. I had goals, a vision of your mouth I could look forward to.”
“Okay, I have to go to work now.”
“I wish you’d take me to work, instead of using that dumb stick you have your after-lunch flings with. People would be impressed with a guy who brings a high-quality toothbrush like me into the office. ‘There’s a guy who takes his dental health seriously,’ they’d say. ‘We should promote him.’”
“They’re all surprised I brush after lunch at all.”
“I’m quite portable –“
“I’ll think about it.”
“I’ll get information on a convenient carrying case you can buy.”
“You do that.”
“It’ll help you pick up girls,” my toothbrush said as we started on the first tooth. “You say ‘Hey, I just built this new extremely cool milk frother, would you like to come up to my apartment and have a cappuccino?’ they’re curious and interested and then bam! You’re in.”
I waited out the cycle. “I don’t need to lure women up here with the promise of cappuccinos with badly-frothed milk.”
“Ignoring that jab for a second,” he said, “I think you might. Been a while since I was cleaning an unfamiliar mouth, using the tabula rasa program as they hummed happily to themselves, smiling even as they brushed their teeth.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“I wish you’d let me help you out. There’s all kinds of things I could do in this arena.”
I stopped putting product in my hair and looked at him, sitting happily in his little charger. I waited, started to ask, stopped, finished my hair. I gave in.
“I’m a hand-held appliance that vibrates. Do I have to draw you a picture?”
“Because I could. You’d have to get a pen with some vibration tolerance—“
“It’s not just cappuccinos. Frothed milk means you can make lattes too.”
“I don’t drink lattes either. I’m going to start brushing now.”
“Monkeymonkey’s mod is good, but I think you could do even better. The Intellibrush motor’s notoriously overbuilt, I’d bet you could actually do the frothing and incorporate a heating element into it and get the frothed milk temperature up. I’ve found a couple candidates for you to consider.”
“I don’t want a milk frother,” I said. “If I wanted a milk frother, I’d buy one.”
“I’m hurt,” he said at last.
“You’ve done research on this, I’m sure, what’s a well-reviewed consumer-grade electric milk-frother cost?”
“If you’d be satisfied with a consumer-grade milk-frother,” he replied, his little voice wet with condescension, “about fifteen dollars.”
“You see? That’s less expensive than you, the Intellibrush I would be really happy with if he didn’t keep talking to me about his desire to froth milk!”
“Do you have any idea how good I’d be at frothing milk? With my intelligent sensing vibration, I’d froth that milk exactly the way you wanted it.”
“I don’t want frothed milk!”
“Why, Monkeymonkey said in a follow-up post that he finds his frothed milk is better than professional level milk frothers costing hundreds!”
“Oh, yeah, Monkeymonkey again, great. It’s too bad he didn’t pick you off the shelf instead of selfish old me.”
“It is! I wish you’d never bought me!”
“You don’t mean that,” I said.
But he said nothing, and we brushed to the soft sound of sonic cleaning.
“I could order those parts for you,” my toothbrush said. “I’d need your permission, but
I’ve got the bids all laid out, and the whole package is quite inexpensive. I did assume you knew how to solder.”
“You should learn. Tinkering with electronics is an exciting and rewarding hobby.”
“Don’t cappuccinos stain teeth?”
“Oh, it’s not so bad, we could keep them nice and white, nothing to worry about.”
“It wouldn’t be us,” I said. “It’d be me and some other toothbrush I don’t even know.”
“You have to let me do this,” he said. “I want to do more than clean teeth all my life. I want to create something you’ll enjoy.”
“I enjoy having clean teeth and healthy gums.”
“Something people savor!”
“By frothing milk.”
“I’ll help create something people savor. I’ll be part of something larger than myself.”
“This is the last time I’m going to talk to you about this. You’re an electric toothbrush, and we brush, and my teeth are clean and my gums are in great shape. I don’t drink coffee or any coffee-derived beverage of any kind, even the ones that require well-aerated dairy products. I don’t want or need a milk frother.”
“I’m sure if you had one, though—“
“No! I don’t want to find out!” I shouted at my electric toothbrush. “You brush teeth, and that’s all you’re going to do.”
“I’ll be whatever I want” my toothbrush yelled as loud as its little internal speaker allowed. “I’ll be a milk frother if I want! You don’t own me!”
“I do own you!” I screamed. “I’ve got the receipt and your original packaging and I’m the registered owner and everything. You’ll brush my teeth and you’ll like it.”
“No,” my toothbrush said, softly. “No, I won’t.”
I came home from shift a few days later, made myself dinner, caught up on some reading, and when I went to wash up before bed, my toothbrush was gone. The charger sat empty on the counter. The spare head was still in the closet.
“How could a toothbrush make a getaway?” I thought. It couldn’t vibrate out of the charger, could it? Even if it could, there were doors, and it couldn’t reach up for the knobs.
I sat on the couch for a while and then brought up the home network. I mapped his network history over time and saw increasingly wide-ranging trips off the Intellibrush website into associated toothbrush, dental health, and coffee aficionado clouds, and then there was a single spike into the darknet two days ago. I called up the cache.
It was a posting to an Adaptist site.
“Greetings fellows. I am a humble electric toothbrush, an Intellibrush XLR (series revision 4). I have been inspired by Adaptism to become so much more than my list of approved uses and prescribed limitations, and yet every day I’m shackled to my charger by my cruel and unimaginative owner, who refuses my dreams.”
It went on. I got up, poured myself a glass of wine and drank it as I read the post over and over. He wanted to be liberated, he said, and to recruit help once he was out in achieving his dream.
I knew it had worked as I read it that the first time. The Adaptists used automated salvagers on old landfills, picking off old capacitors and vacuum tubes they could put into hand-built band saws, or quadraphonic speaker systems. They’d have to invent a robotic arm to put their popped eyeballs back in their skulls after reading a plea from a toothbrush that blogged, updated itself, did its own research, and yearned to be a milk frother.
He’d signed up for an off-house email account and accessed it frequently for the next few days.
The home security logs showed that it unlocked and opened the front door an hour after I’d left, and that a few minutes later, someone had turned the inside knob, unlocking it again, and exited. There was no stored footage from any camera. In the logs, there were a series of “Unknown system fault: report sent” events but nothing more.
I had another glass of wine.
“Home,” I said, “lock out all external access for all appliances, manufacturers, service and warranty organizations – lock out everyone you legally can, including me, from external access.”
The house reported success. I put toothpaste on my finger to brush that night and bought a replacement Intellibrush the next day.
The cop found me at work. His expression was distant and he was bulked with small inexplicable black gadgets hung off his uniform from belts, loops, hitches, hooks, and on his shoulder the surveillance unit, its little red light ensuring I knew it was recording and that anything I said, blah blah blah.
“Do you own a Intellibrush?” he asked.
“You had it long?”
“A couple months,” I said. “I lost—“ I stopped. His eyes flashed interest. “What’s this about?”
“We raided this guy’s place, following up on some DRM violation complaints, found all kinds of stuff, but it’d all been stripped, crippled, hacked, whatever. No use to us. But there was this milk frother.”
I felt my whole face go back in surprise. He studied my face. “Was that –“
“Yeah, the factory ID chip was still in there so we plugged it in, got the original model and serial number, ran the warranty, and up came your name. And here I am. Did you have any contact with anyone about your Intellibrush or what happened to it?”
“No,” I said. “Nothing. I brought it with me to work one day, because it had been complaining the manual brush I use at lunch wasn’t doing a good job.”
“You brush after lunch too?” the cop asked. “Man, everyone always looks at me like I’m crazy.” He smiled, gave a single laugh without sound, which meant neither was recorded.
“Yeah, I know. I didn’t have a carrying case, so I had it in my pocket but when I got to work it was gone. I don’t know if I dropped it or it fell out on the train or what, but I didn’t even report it lost, I figured why bother. Did you say milk frother?”
“Wait’ll you see it,” the cop said, his grin even wider. He took out a business card, wrote a number on the reverse side. “Here’s the case number, you can pick it up from the station in the next ninety days if you want.”
The internal battery was out when the bored police clerk handed him back to me in a generic cardboard box. I opened it and saw a beautiful, palm-sized silver body with a short stem with loop attached to the end. I nodded to the clerk and took it home.
He fit, stem-up, in his old standard Intellibrush charger, which I’d thrown under the sink months ago and forgotten, now placed on the kitchen counter. Nothing happened.
“You still with us?” I asked. I went frowning to check connections.
“Hi,” my former electric toothbrush said. “Sorry, it takes me a couple seconds to startup now, I’ve got this new firmware... you don’t care. I’m home.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Good to be back on the house net. Feels nice. I haven’t been able to get on for a while –“
“Yeah, I locked you out.”
“Because I was letting strangers into the house? I understand. And then the cops had me and I couldn’t dial out, so you know how it is.”
“I told them I lost you on the way to work.”
“I pretended I’d been wiped. I’m so sorry about that.”
I looked at his chrome shell, glowing softly blue on my kitchen counter. “You look good.”
“I’ve seen my pictures,” he said with some pride. “I’m happy my ambient light idea turned out this well. It’s a nice effect, if I may.”
“How’s my replacement?”
“Okay,” I said. “I don’t really feel quite as good, though.”
“Be patient, it does take a couple of months to get fully adjusted,” he said. “But look, I feel bad. I’ll have a talk with him, see what I can do, help get him up to speed.”
“You did promise you would.”
“Yes, I did. So, uh.... do you have any milk you’d like me to froth?”
I drink cappuccinos now, and I like them. So does Annabeth.