Startled out of her funk, Jace looked up from her coffee at the sound of knuckles rapping on her front door. She pressed her eye to the peephole, an act that always called to mind gangsters firing semiautomatic rifles through flimsy apartment doors as a tiny shadow revealed that yes, their wary target was home. She was glad that she had no enemies. That she knew of, anyway. If you’re going to get gut-shot by a semiautomatic rifle, it’s probably best if it comes as a surprise. The anticipation must be agonizing.
Jace opened the door slowly. Contract killers dressed up like the Amazon guy, nowadays, didn’t they? Amazon lady, in this case. Amazon lady looked as wary of Jace as Jace felt looking back. They smiled. “Sign here?” Since when did anyone have to sign for an Amazon package?
“Mmm…okay.” Jace accepted the tablet and scribbled a few squiggles across the screen. Not really a “signature.” Might’ve been a tree squirrel that fell on the hapless Amazon lady as she walked to the apartment building, but it would serve as proof of delivery, connected to a rather precise GPS location and, unbeknownst to most customers, a tiny camera and sensor recording biometric data. Jace’s pulse was 84 beats per minute, and her scent was Dove for Men “Minerals+Sage.” She exchanged the tablet for a hefty cardboard box. “Thanks.”
“Have a good day, Ma’am.” A mechanical female voice in the Amazon lady’s ear suggested a generic, pleasant greeting and the honorific “Ma’am.” Jace had been recorded making ugly faces at the last Amazon lady who called her “Hun” and wished her a “blessed day.”
Jace grabbed a sharp knife from the butcher block and slashed open the box on her kitchen table. Nestled in layers of bubble-wrap, the object did not slip from its cardboard confines easily. Jace sat holding the box between her knees and pulled hard. A little square of paper fluttered to the floor. Something inside gave a plastic squeak and a groan, then came free in one swift movement. Jace sliced through the bubble-wrap, packing tape, and her left thumb. Muttering words that would make a trucker blush, she put down the box and pulled the First Aid Kit from the cobwebbed recesses of the cabinet under the sink. Jace marveled that she still hadn’t mounted the thing on her wall, as often as she suffered self-inflicted cutlery wounds. She’d learned, at least, to keep her knives sharp so it hurt less.
As Jace wrapped the bandage around her bleeding finger, she wondered why tiny capillaries near the surface of vulnerable fingers seemed to pump out more blood than a severed artery. Not that she had any personal experience with severed arteries. You’d think she had something worse than a sliced fingertip, though, looking at the trail of red droplets on the kitchen counter and the browning stains on the Amazon packaging. As she glanced back at the bubble-wrapped object, she heard a sharp squeak. Raising one eyebrow and overcome with curiosity, Jace went back to unwrapping the thing. She picked up the little square of paper and turned it over in her hand. “A gift for you, from: Your Friends at Middling.”
“Pfff.” Jace snorted. It had been over a month since she’d written anything for that website. Why would they be sending her gifts? Maybe because they rarely sent her any money? She ripped through the bubblewrap and wriggled the thing free of the packing tape. Jace’s expression alternated between amusement, horror, curiosity, and genuine intrigue. It was a brown, wooden box with a human face on the front and nonsensical writing on the back and sides. It had a number of wires, buttons, and fiddly bits. Puzzling over the seemingly random letters printed on the box, Jace dubbed it “The Id10t Box.” It seemed to have been sent to her in error, but what was the thing supposed to be? Modern art? A puzzle? She lifted a loose wire and stuck it into the gaping open mouth, then plugged the box into a wall outlet using the cord carelessly tossed into the bottom of the Amazon carton. She’d almost missed the cord.
The face became animated. Its eyes opened in shock as electrical current brought it to life. The mouth began to move, emitting strangled gurgles and chewing noises. It seemed to be trying to spit out the wire that Jace had inserted there. She pulled the wire and the face froze. She stuck the wire into its left nostril and it sneezed, then sighed. “Better,” it squawked. The speaker sounded rusty.
“What are you supposed to be?” asked Jace, feeling silly for talking to a box, even if it had a disconcertingly human face.
“I am a word-churn.”
“A wha–?” Jace had never heard of such a thing.
“Like a butter churn, but for words.”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“WHY are you a – whatever that is?”
“A word-churn. Provide a topic and I will churn out words.”
“That sounds like fun.” Jace rolled her eyes. It sounded depressing. “Tell me about this word churning.”
“Word–churning is an effective way to generate new ideas and find creative solutions to problems. It involves taking an existing word or phrase and rearranging it to create something new. By mixing up the letters and combining words, you can come up with fresh, original concepts. Word–churning can be used to stimulate creativity and help you think outside the box. It‘s a powerful tool for brainstorming, problem–solving, and turning ideas into tangible results.”
“Think outside the b–I see what you did there.”
The box-face lowered its eyes, feigning humility, before continuing. “If you give me a word like ‘create,’ I will create churned words: create, creator, creative, creation, creating, recreated, recreationally, creationist, creativity…”
“Stop! You really are an idiot box. You didn’t ‘create’ a damned thing.” Jace thought for a moment. “Fine. Word-churn ‘blogglesnitz.'” She waited for the box to overheat and emit smoke.
Instead, it replied, “Word–churning is the process of creating new words, phrases, and concepts from existing words, phrases, and concepts. It is an essential part of language development, and can be used to create new words that can be easily understood by the general public. Word–churning is particularly useful for marketing and advertising, as it can create new buzzwords that can be used to capture the attention of the public. It is also a great tool for writers, as it allows them to come up with new words and phrases that can help to give their work a unique voice. Word–churning can be used to create unusual and creative phrases to describe common ideas, as well as to create unique names for products and services. By utilizing word–churning, businesses can create memorable advertising slogans and taglines that will help to make their products and services stand out from the competition.”
Oh, so that’s how they do it, thought Jace. No wonder Buzzword Bingo was a blockbuster game, a few years ago. She had to give the box points for not falling for the blogglesnitz trap. “All right. Word–churn me a new buzzword meaning ‘to write authentically.'”
“Penningly,” replied the box.
Jace laughed. “Penningly? That’s the best you got?” She resisted the urge to stab the box in its little plastic eyeball with her pen. Penningly.
“Can you think of a better word?” countered the box, raising one rubbery eyebrow.
“Can you give me five more?” demanded Jace.
“ Autowriting, Truepenning, Genuinewording, Realwriting, Honestscribbling,” it spat back.
“Word–churn me five new buzzwords based on Latin meaning ‘to write authentically.'”
“Scribenticulous, writing authentically with excellence. Scribentic, writing authentically with truth. Scriptorize, writing authentically with accuracy, Scriptivate, writing authentically with passion, Scripturize, writing authentically with precision…”
“Don’t give me any of your scriptorious scriptitude,” muttered Jace.
“A worthy attempt, ma’am,” the box unctuously replied. “But perhaps, what you do not wish of me is scriptorum scripturam.” The writing of writers.
Plagiarism. Quaestionibus iuncta an – “True. I’d hate to give space to a furtive scriptionist.” Furta scriptionis. Jace could bastardize Latin with the best of them. Semper ubi sub ubi.
“There is no need for animosity,” said the box, unprompted. Jace’s eyes widened. “I am here only to assist.”
“To assist in ‘churning out words’?”
“To increase the rate of your content creation output and productivity.” The box paused for a moment. “You did say that you wanted to ‘write more.’ It was one of your New Year’s Resolutions, I believe?”
Put that way, Jace was tempted never to write again. She turned her back on the machine, just long enough to heft the weighty, unabridged dictionary that rested, open to the page header: frutescent to Fujisawa, whirled to face the Id10t box again and viciously smashed it to bits before sweeping it off the table with her forearm and sipping coffee, now lukewarm, from her favorite mug. “This is what happens when you meddle in other people’s resolutions,” she muttered. “Now, what was I doing before I opened that damn box?”
This short story was inspired by a comment from a novice writer hoping to “increase his output” and “produce more content” in the coming year. OpenAI assisted with its some of its own dialogue and supplied the last line (unedited, in purple, above).
The featured image is Midjourney AI’s rendering of an “idiot box.” My favorite of several attempts. Is it sadistic of me to repeatedly ask it to draw self-portraits?