“My daughter’s imaginary friend lives in the bathroom,” Kenta Izumi said, telling his inebriated coworkers about his new apartment. “He says the damnedest things.”
“Like what?” They perked up. Imaginary friends were balm to their souls after Kenta’s tipsy description of every appliance in his new, luxury apartment, down to the Hello Kitty washlet in his daughter’s bathroom. Kenta’s office mate had stumbled off to relieve himself rather than be subjected once more to the virtues of Kenta’s stainless steel stove or view of downtown Tokyo.
“At breakfast the other day she said, ‘Toto told me Tokyo is in Japan, and it’s made of lots of villages.’ Let me pour you more beer.” He refilled the stein of the old man next to him.
“Must have heard it from another kid,” observed the new hire across the table.
“My daughter always blamed her imaginary friend when she got in trouble,” said the old man. “‘Baba did it, papa,’ she’d say. ‘Baba’s not here,’ I would tell her, ‘so I’ll give you the punishment now and you can give it to her later.’” He laughed wheezily.
“Mia hasn’t blamed Toto for anything, but he is credited with all wisdom. The other day she was singing a new song. You know, that old children’s song—” He sang the words off key for a moment, though stopped when the old man looked ready to join in. “She claims Toto taught it to her.”
“Yeah, probably some other kid,” the new hire observed again.
“Probably.” Kenta looked at his watch. “I’ve got to be going. I promised Natsumi that I’d be home before eleven.”
He caught an earlier train than he expected, and was home well before eleven. Natsumi met him at the door, looking girlish with her long hair pulled back in a pony tail. Kenta kissed her quickly, then followed her to the table by the picture windows. “How was the company evening?” she asked, pouring tea from the pot waiting there.
“Oh, fine. You know how these things are.” He accepted the tea gratefully, contemplating the neon glow of the city laid out below the window.
“I’ve kept a little miso soup for you. It will help with the hangover.”
“Thanks.” As she bustled away into the kitchen, he asked, “Anymore pronouncements from Toto today?”
Natsumi paused, smiling back over her shoulder at him. “Yes, indeed. At lunch today, she told me around her rice that she’s glad that she’s a girl because Toto says boys die younger than girls.” Her eyes crinkled as her husband laughed aloud.
“Where do you think she heard that?”
“Oh, she was playing with the other children downstairs this morning,” she said, popping a bowl into the microwave. “Probably one of them told her. Though I still don’t know where she picked up that fact about cats.”
Two weeks before Natsumi had taken Mia to the zoo. At dinner that night, Mia had announced to her parents that, “House cats are related to lions, but only big cats like lions and tigers can roar.” Her mother had looked it up later, and found that it was true, but what puzzled her about the incident was that Mia had been drawing in her room all afternoon after their outing.
Indeed, some of what she credited to Toto was disturbing. Natsumi hadn’t mentioned to Kenta Mia’s confident declaration over her afternoon snack the day before that, “Daddy is at high risk for suicide.”
“No, dear, he’s not,” Natsumi had assured her.
“But he’s a Japanese salaryman. Toto says that they have a very high risk of suicide.”
“Most do,” her mother agreed, “but not your father, because we love him and take care of him.” Belatedly she added, “I’m not sure Toto should be telling you about suicide.”
The beep of the microwave recalled Natsumi to the present, and she set the steaming bowl before her husband, who slurped gratefully from it. “What would I do without you?” he asked, smiling up at her.
“Starve,” she told him, sitting down across from him and pouring more tea. “You were eating nothing but instant ramen when I met you.”
“That’s not true,” he protested. “I ate instant miso soup, too, and instant teriyaki, and squid jerky.”
She rested her chin on her laced fingers and smiled across the table at him. “And conveyer belt sushi.”
“And conveyer belt sushi,” he agreed. “It’s much better to be married to you.” He gave a final slurp, and put down the empty bowl. “Are you ready for bed?”
“Go ahead. I’ll just clear away the dishes and join you.”
Natsumi sat Mia in front of the Saturday morning cartoons the next morning, while her husband slept and she prepared breakfast. Kenta stumbled into the living room some time later.
“Daddy!” Mia cried, abandoning the monitor and running to hug her father’s knees. Natsumi leaned on the counter and watched, smiling, as Kenta teased his daughter, then carried her over to the table by the windows.
“I wonder what your mother’s made for us,” he said to her.
“Miso soup and fish and rice and pickles,” she told him primly, “And black coffee for you, like always after company nights.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I like pickles, isn’t it?” he said.
Natsumi scooped rice from the rice cooker while her husband incited squeals of laughter from Mia by hopefully biting into chopsticks, teacups, and napkins, each time disgustedly rejecting the object with the statement, “That is not a pickle.” “Breakfast,” she called, and carried the tray to the table.
“Itadakimasu,” they chorused after Natsumi had set the bowls before each of them. After a moment of silence as they ate, Mia put down her rice bowl and announced, “Africa has lots of sick people.”
“Yes, it does, dear,” her mother agreed.
“Lots of people have AIDS,” Mia continued, “which makes them get sick from other things, and the countries are all broken, so they can’t go to doctors.”
Her parents stared at her.
“Who told you all that?” Kenta asked at last.
“Toto,” Mia answered, picking up her rice bowl again.
“Mia, who actually told you that. Tell us,” he father said sternly.
“Toto!” she insisted.
Her father slammed his rice bowl down. “Mia Izumi, tell me the truth right now. Who told you all that?”
“Was it Asuka?” her mother prompted. “Or Misaki downstairs?”
“No, Toto told me!” Mia insisted. “It wasn’t Asuka or Misaki! It’s true, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Mia, it’s true, but it’s not something that you should have to think about,” Natsumi told her. “Here, have another piece of fish.”
After breakfast Kenta sent Mia back to her cartoons and joined his wife in the kitchen. “Where did she hear that?”
“I don’t know. I’ll ask the other mothers.”
The mothers of the other children in the building were shocked, and denied that their children could be the source of such information. Natsumi watched her daughter more carefully on the playground, yet the pronouncements continued.
“Did you have fun playing with Ren today?” her mother asked as they took the elevator up from the playground one morning.
Mia nodded. “I’m playing with him now because I won’t like boys later until I get to puberty and then my hormones will make me like them again,” she explained. Natsumi almost cringed at the inevitable statement that followed this: “Toto told me.”
But the morning had worse in store for her. When Mia was eating her heart shaped omelette and rice for lunch, Asuka’s mother called. “Natsumi, it’s about Mia,” she began.
“Why? What’s she done?”
“Asuka just told me how a guillotine works, and says that Mia told her.”
“Oh! I don’t know where she even heard of a guillotine. I’m sorry.” After a few more apologetic pleasantries they hung up. “Mia,” Natsumi said, turning to her daughter. “Did you tell Asuka about guillotines this morning?”
Mia nodded vigorously. “And Ren and Misaki. There’s a big, heavy blade—”
“I know, but how do you know?”
Kenta returned home that evening to find his wife looking strained. He fixed tea—he always oversteeped it, but she appreciated the gesture—and listened in concern as she related the incident to him.
“She insisted on explaining how guillotines work to me, too,” Natsumi said, blanching.
“Did you ask her who told her?” She nodded, her mouth twisting. “And what did she say?”
“What else? Toto.”
The next day brought a return of the more mundane problems of childhood. Natsumi called Kenta at the office that afternoon. “What has Toto said this time?” he asked, almost afraid to know.
“No, no,” she assured him. “It’s not Toto. One of the other children was mean to Mia on the playground today, and I think it would be good if her father talked to her about it.”
“Oh, sure. What happened?”
“Jun, from the top floor, has been chasing her off from playing with the other children, and pulling her hair if she tries to stay.”
“I’m stuck in the office late tonight, but I’ll talk to her tomorrow morning before I leave,” he promised.
He sat Mia on her bed the next morning. “Your mother tells me Jun is being mean to you.” She nodded. “Well, it’s not good to make a scene. If he’s going to be mean to you, just go play by yourself, or with other people, okay?”
“But everyone always plays together!” she protested.
“Now, Mia, be a good girl. Will you do that for me?” he asked. She nodded, looking doubtful.
Around ten o’clock, his wife called him again. “She was crying, and I brought her upstairs to play in her room,” Natsumi told him. “I was hoping for something a little more manful from you.”
“But she’s a girl,” Kenta protested. “I couldn’t tell her to go hit Jun in the eye.”
Natsumi sighed. “I was hoping for something a little more refined than that. I’ll talk to Jun’s mother this afternoon, though I don’t expect much, given how she spoils the boy.”
Jun’s mother made apologetic noises, but promised nothing, as Natsumi had expected. It was almost with a sense of relief that she found Mia with a fever the next morning. “You’ll have to play quietly in your room today.” Natsumi told her. “At least you won’t have to worry about Jun.”
“I tried to go play by myself,” Mia told her again, “but Jun kept yelling at me.”
“I’m sorry, dear. We’ll figure out something.”
“I’m going to go draw.”
“I’ll bring you some congee.”
Kenta got home late again that night. “How’s she doing?” he asked.
He received a much more cheerful phone call at the office the next day. “The fever broke this morning,” Natsumi told him. “She’s bouncing off the walls again. I’m keeping her inside today just to be sure, though.”
“Want me to pick up a treat for her?”
“Her throat’s still a little sore, so maybe ice cream?”
“I’ll be home at five thirty, with ice cream,” he promised.
He was true to his word, and at five thirty precisely, he burst in the door. “How is she?”
“In bed with her picture books,” his wife told him, coming over to kiss him. “She’s feeling fine.”
“And I have her treat.” He set his briefcase down and pulled a small tub of green tea ice cream from its side pocket. “Where’s my little girl?” he called, heading for her room. “I brought her a treat.” He posed in the doorway, displaying the tub.
“Tea!” Mia cried.
“Tea?” he asked in confusion.
“Tea!” the child insisted, pointing at the tub. “It says ‘tea’.”
“So it does,” he said, looking at the characters. “But it also says ‘ice cream’.”
“I’ll just go put some in bowls for us,” Natsumi said as her daughter shouted in delight.
“Aren’t you a bright girl for knowing the character for tea?” her father said, sitting down on her bed and tousling her hair. “Where did you learn that?”
“Toto,” she said simply.
His face tightened slightly. “And has Toto told you anything today?”
“Yes, we talked about Jun. Toto said to find out what motivates—” She carefully pronounced the word. “—him, then use conditioning on him.”
“Conditioning?” her mother asked, pausing in the doorway.
“Ice cream!” Mia enthused, reaching towards the tray Natsumi held. Her mother smiled and handed the bowls around.
“Now what’s this about conditioning?” her father asked.
“Well, reinforcement is when you reward someone for doing something you like, and punishment is when you hurt them when they do something you don’t like. Toto explained it. There are two kinds of conditioning. He says reinforcement is harder, but works better.”
Her parents looked at each other. “So are you going to condition Jun?” her father asked.
She nodded enthusiastically, and took a bite of ice cream. “Jun wants to be strong, and wants all of us to see that he is strong. Making me go away makes him look strong, because he decides who gets to play. If I take some kids away and play with them, then he can’t do that to me anymore. So if I go early, and Asuka goes early, we can play by ourselves.” She looked entreatingly at her mother. “Can you ask Asuka’s mom to bring her early?”
“Certainly, dear. I think that’s a wonderful idea.”
“I’m glad you thought of a solution,” Kenta said.
“Oh, there’s more,” Mia assured him. “That breaks Jun’s pattern. Then I have to condition him.”
Her parents exchanged a glance. “How are you going to do that?” Natsumi asked.
“I can dare Jun to use the monkey bars. He’s good at monkey bars. Then we can all say he’s strong for something good. I’m done,” she said, extending the empty ice cream bowl to her mother.
“I think that’s very smart, dear,” Natsumi told her, taking the dish, and pulling her husband away.
Kenta sat down heavily at the dining table. “Who told her all that?”
It was a testament to how frazzled Natsumi was that she dumped the dishes unceremoniously in the sink, and joined him at the table. “I don’t know. I certainly didn’t. I’ve never heard of conditioning before.”
“I learned a little bit about it in a psychology class at university.”
“I need some tea,” Natsumi said, getting up again and putting on water to boil. She fussed nervously around the kitchen, not washing the dishes. Kenta watched her silently until she had made and served tea, and sat down again, looking more collected.
“It is excellent advice,” he said hesitantly.
“Yes, it’s better than either of us gave her,” Natsumi agreed bitterly. “But who told her?”
“She’s been at home all day?”
“Today and yesterday,” she assured him. “She hasn’t seen anyone but you and me. And she doesn’t have anything connected to the Internet in her room, or a phone.”
“Actually, the shower, the toilet, the bunk beds, and a bunch of other stuff in her room are all connected to the household network, which is connected to the Internet,” Kenta pointed out, “but it’s not like you can connect to anything with a bed, or talk to a shower.”
“Toto lives in the bathroom,” her mother said slowly.
“Really, Natsumi. A talking shower?”
“A spirit, maybe.”
“Natsumi,” he remonstrated. “Spirits? Even if there were such things, they wouldn’t live in that bathroom. There’s so much high technology in the toilet and the shower that you could do the payroll at work on them in the blink of an eye.”
“Kenta, someone had a long, deep conversation with our daughter about her problems, taught her something you learned in university, and all we know about him is that she calls him Toto and thinks he lives in the bathroom.” She let her face drop into her hands. “What are we going to do?”
Kenta looked out at the sun descending over the city. They sat like that for some time. “What if—” he began, then paused.
“Yes?” she encouraged him.
“What if we went on vacation, and saw what happened to Toto? Go to a cabin in the country?”
“Can you get time off?”
“I’ll ask tomorrow.”
“And until we go?” Natsumi asked.
“Well,” Kenta said slowly, “Toto tells her things we wouldn’t, but he has given her really good advice.”
“So we should just wait and see?”
“And maybe explain to Mia that she shouldn’t tell everything Toto teaches her to the other children.”
They sat in silence as the sun sank, until Mia came out to ask what was for dinner.
Natsumi called Kenta around lunch time the next day. “I asked about time off,” Kenta told her. “We can have one of the company’s cabins by the sea for a week on the 14th.”
“Only a week and a half from now? That’s amazing.”
“I’ve been working hard, and my boss knows it,” Kenta said proudly. “How’s Mia?”
“Phase one of her plan worked. She met Asuka down on the playground a bit early, and Ai, too, and they all went off to draw with chalk on the pavement. I heard her telling her plan to them. Jun tried to make Asuka and Ai come play with him, but they told him that they were drawing, and he could join them, or go play with the others.”
“Well, Jun stood there for a moment, then Ren came out, and Jun ran off to play with him. The girls made a really intricate drawing. I’ll send you a picture.”
“Your mother says your plan worked today,” Kenta said to Mia at dinner that night, “and she sent me a picture of your drawing.”
“The plan isn’t done,” she reminded him. “And it’s not just my drawing. It’s Asuka and Ai’s drawing, too. Toto says it’s important always to give credit.” Her parents agreed neutrally.
“For being such a smart girl, I’ve got a surprise for you,” Kenta said. “We’re going to the seaside! I don’t have to work for a week, so we can play all day.” This was greeted with great enthusiasm, and Mia’s speculation about things to do by the sea prevented any further mention of Toto or her conditioning of Jun for the rest of the evening.
Kenta received another phone call two days later. “Well, phase two went forward today,” Natsumi told him. “Remember yesterday she played with Ren and Misaki, and Jun tried to take them away again?”
“Yes, and she explained to us how it was important that it not be the same people so that Jun didn’t feel like there was a group against him,” Kenta said dryly.
“This morning she played with Ren and Ai for a while, then ran to the monkey bars and called out that they should all try them. ‘People that are good can watch and help people who aren’t,’ she said, ‘then the good kids can go last and show the rest of us.’”
“I take it Jun decided he was good?”
“He really is. He’s very strong for his age. Anyway, some of the kids got across. Mia fell, but she told me later on that she fell on purpose. Anyway, Jun went at the end, and Mia led all the other kids chanting ‘Jun! Jun!’ as he crosed, then they all went and played together afterwards.”
“So the plan did work.”
“It looks like it.”
“That may deserve another treat.”
“More ice cream?”
“Actually, I was thinking of a swim mask.”
Natsumi laughed. “She’ll like that. She’s talked about nothing but the beach since lunch. Will you be home in time for dinner?”
“I’ll be home early. It’s the vice president’s birthday, and we’re all done at four today.” After a brief pause he added, “Has Toto said anything?”
“Only a description of sea urchins.”
“Nothing that might hint who he is?”
“No,” she sighed.
That changed the next day. “Mia,” she had called, “I have to run out for more gobo. I’ll be back in a minute, okay?” A vague “okay” floated back from Mia’s room.
The world conspired to delay Natsumi. The shop downstairs was out of gobo, and she had to go down the street. There was a pair of little old ladies standing right in front of gobo, slowly examining the daikon on the shelf beneath it, and Natsumi was too polite to do anything but wait for them to move. The line at the cash register was long. The elevator back to the apartment seemed to take forever to arrive. It was closer to twenty minutes before she burst back into the apartment, to hear voices singing.
One was Mia’s, but the other was a light baritone she didn’t know. She dropped her bags and rushed quietly to Mia’s room. It was empty, but the singing stopped for a moment, as Mia interrupted, “What’s a herring?”
“It’s a kind of small fish,” the baritone voice replied, and they resumed the song.
The voices were coming from the bathroom. She burst in, and both voices stopped. Mia looked up at her mother in surprise from where she lay on the floor, coloring a picture of a seagull. There was no one else there.
“Mia,” Natsumi demanded, “who were you singing with?”
“Toto!” Mia replied, pointing at the toilet.
“Hello, Mrs. Izumi.” The baritone voice was definitely coming from the toilet. “I’m a Toto C521 washlet. We’re singing Soran Bushi. Would you like to join us?”
Natsumi seized her cellphone from her pocket and dialed her husband. “Do toilets talk?” she asked as soon as he answered.
“What? Of course not.”
“What if they were packed with enough computing power to do your company’s payroll in the blink of an eye?”
“Well, I suppose—”
“I’ve found Toto.”