July 21

4 – Lab

I was nervous for the first time in what seemed like decades.  There wasn’t a lot that could affect me anymore, but sitting there in class waiting to hear the announcements was indeed inducing a strange amount of fear and anxiousness in me.  The weird thing, though, is I liked the feeling.  Being nervous was a normal part of life.

Normalcy, well, that’s something I would take in any form.

Hay and I glued our eyes and ears to the TV as it came on.  Principal Groves, who’d probably wanted to smack me upside the head in the last iteration, looked like his usual self.  Not that I didn’t expect it, but who really knew anymore.

Then, it came.

“I will be reading morning announcements today due to yesterday’s unfortunate events.”

“Whoa,” Hay whispered.

“See, I wasn’t crazy.”

“Hayley, Brendon, quiet,” Mrs. Chen scolded.  Of course, we didn’t care about getting reprimanded.  The instant we’d heard the word ‘unfortunate‘, our path for this iteration had been solidified.  We’d proceed with the plan we’d engineered the night before.

When the bell rang for 2nd period, we’d begin.  We couldn’t cause a commotion because we needed absolutely no attention drawn to us.  That meant we had to sit through 1st period for 90 grueling minutes.

And it might sound crazy, but for the first time in probably 15 years of iterations, I actually paid attention to the lesson, raised my hand to answer questions, asked ridiculous difficult questions to try to stump Mrs. Chen.  Literally anything to pass the time.

Hay snickered every time I raised my hand, like she couldn’t believe how into it I was.  I probably deserved it, since I was being unusually difficult to Mrs. Chen, but it didn’t matter.  At least she was getting some sort of entertainment value out of it.  After all, she had to endure this class period as well.

When the bell rang, I practically jumped out of my desk.  Hay would’ve normally laughed at such a spectacle since I was never in a hurry to do anything, but this iteration held significance.  We immediately left Mrs. Chen’s classroom, ignoring Brent entirely.  I didn’t even notice if he tried to talk to me.

We needed to get to the computer lab on the second floor.  That, in and of itself, wasn’t a problem, but the lab was locked, and if anyone found us in there, our plans for the day would be shot and we’d have to try again tomorrow.

The second floor of the school was, unsurprisingly, mostly classrooms, but the computer lab was nestled at the end of the hallway around a corner, right next to the library.  It would be easy to not draw the attention of students, but it wasn’t like we cared about that anyway.  The more difficult proposition was to not draw the attention of the librarians that oversaw the usage of the lab.

I knew that if we stood at the very end of the hall until the bell rang again, no one would bother us for at least a few minutes.  That was where I sometimes stood while waiting to disperse myself into Hay’s class, since the hallways by the classrooms were all monitored by teachers.

We stood in that spot and waited, and as expected, the bell rang without any fanfare.  The hallway was empty, and the computer lab door was 10 feet away.

Hay’s plan to enter the lab was simple.  We’d check the handle, and if it was locked like it was supposed to be, we’d have to do a little social engineering to get in.  It would be somewhat difficult, but we couldn’t break down the door and we had no idea where the keys were kept.

I walked up to the door and twisted the knob, frowning as it barely gave.  Locked, as it should’ve been.  Crap.  I mean, we expected it, but still, it was frustrating.  Now we’d have to trick the librarians into letting us in, which, quite frankly, wouldn’t be easy.

Hay was better with this kind of stuff, so she led us into the library and up to one of the desks where a librarian sat.  I stood beside her and watched as she smiled the most adorably fake smile I’d seen her express in quite some time.

“Hi there, can I help you?”

“Hello.”  Bright and cheery, always convincing.  Hay was incredible.  “Mr. Randal asked us to come and get the computer lab key for this period.  Is it available?”

“It is, but I will need to see a note from him.”

Of course, we expected something along those lines, so Hay dug into her bag and fished out one of the five different notes we’d written with Mr. Randal’s name forged at the bottom.  It was the first time we’d ever tried something like this with a librarian, so we had literally no expectations on how it would go down.  Despite how desperate we were for the plan to work, it was exciting to do something different where results were unknown.

Hay handed over the note, which the librarian glanced at very briefly.  “Can you please let Mr. Randal know that we really need to be made aware ahead of time for computer lab usage?  I’ll let it slide today, but in the future, it’s very important that we receive a heads up.”

“Yes ma’am, of course.”  God, her smile was perfect.

The librarian fished a key out of her pocket, then walked over to a locker behind her desk.  With the key from her pocket, she unlocked the locker, hunted through it for a moment, then produced another key.

“We’ll need this returned when the class leaves the lab, and please remember to observe the rules and cleanup after yourselves.”

“Absolutely, no problem.  Thank you so much!”

We walked as casually as we could out of the library, but then rushed as soon as we were out of sight to unlock the lab door.

Hay stood guard by the door as I rushed over to what I knew was the best computer in the room.  Some number of iterations ago, I’d taught myself some computer skills by ripping apart my computer at home dozens of times and breaking into my neighbor’s LAN via their poorly-secured WiFi network and messing with their computers.  It wasn’t much – I think it was referred to as “script-kiddie” stuff – but I had to hope it would suffice for getting this job done.

First, I needed administrator access to the workstation.  From my backpack, I pulled out a thumbdrive, stuck it into the computer, and rebooted.  When the POST screen came up, I hit F12 to enter a boot menu, then chose the option to boot from USB drive.  The NTPasswordReset boot screen appeared, and the application loaded.  I went through the steps, which were crude, but did the job extremely well.  The Administrator account wasn’t disabled, so I used the application to rewrite the password hash with a new one of my choosing.

Bam, admin access.

I rebooted the computer again, but this time to Windows.  When the login screen appeared, I typed in ‘Administrator’ and the password that I’d just chosen.  While the desktop loaded, I swapped out thumbdrives.  This one had an application called mimikatz on it, which I’d tried before and watched videos on, but I only knew how to use it in theory.  Breaking into an enterprise network was much different from my neighbor’s LAN, which I was prepared for, but I didn’t have an enterprise network to test this on.

I fumbled through the instructions and help menus, watched a couple more videos, and finally made a little progress.  I didn’t know a lot of the terminology the application used, which was frustrating.  DCs, NTLM, Kerberos…no clue, I had never gotten that deep into computers.

“Crap!  The librarian is coming!”

I froze.  There was no way to salvage today if we were caught.

“Did she see you?”

“Not sure, doesn’t matter anyway.  She’s definitely coming.”

Ugh.  This was immensely frustrating.  I locked the workstation and slid the chair back.  Hay sat down across the table from me and put her head on the desk with a deep sigh.

The door swung open and the librarian glared at me, her eyes narrowing as mine met hers.  “Mr. Randal informed me that he didn’t send any students to reserve the computer lab.”

“Oh, yeah.”  I stared at her blankly, my eyes conveying no emotion.  “We lied.”

“You’re going to see Principal Groves about this,” she said sternly.

Hay and I both stood up.  God, this sucked.

“Nah, we’ll just go home.  Thanks for the offer, though.”

We approached the door, which she attempted to block.

“Excuse me?  I don’t think so.”  Her eyes burned with fury.  Honestly, I’d be furious too, but the librarian could never understand the predicament we were in.  Neither of us had the energy to right the situation in any meaningful way, so we’d just let it reset.

Hay flashed the same smile from earlier, except the fakeness I saw in her eyes was replaced by raw, animal anger.  It was terrifying, even to me.  “Can you please move?  I don’t want to push you.”

The librarian stood there for a second, her expression of anger now wavering.  Hay never would’ve hurt this lady, but she could bluff extraordinarily well.  The uncertainty of the situation finally took over the librarian’s face, and she stepped aside.

“Thank you.”

I nodded as we passed by her.  “See you tomorrow.”

*     *     *

We knew where the key was, so there was no point in alerting a librarian by asking for it.  Now, we could just take it.  The issue was figuring out when.  There was no point in going to first period, so we just flat out skipped it and went straight to the library.

There were two things we could try from here.  The first was to sneak in, hopefully unseen, and try to just steal the key.  Probably easier said than done, but we had no clue if the librarians ever left or always just sat at their desks.  The second thing we could try was less attractive, as it was basically a (slightly safer?) variant of what we’d done and failed with yesterday.  Hay could distract the librarians while I stole the key, then I would go do what I needed to do by myself while Hay got reprimanded for skipping class or whatever.

This iteration, we’d try option number one.

We stood outside of the library, crouched below the glass so we could peek inside.  One librarian was arranging books on the far end of the library, nowhere near the desks.  The other librarian – the one we’d had our run in with during the last iteration – was sitting at her desk scribbling on something.  Not exactly ideal.

“How long do we wait before going with Plan B?”

There was no right answer.  “I dunno.  15 minutes?  How patient are you feeling?”

“Absolutely 200% impatient.”

“So…five minutes?”

Hay sighed.  “I guess.  I dunno.  Let’s just see how it goes.”

I didn’t know either of the librarians’ names.  I didn’t bother finding out yesterday, and I probably never would.  But I’d nickname the librarian from yesterday Deskie.  The other one would be Bookie, since she literally had done nothing but touch books for the first five minutes we spied on them.  As you might be able to tell, I’m not the most creative person in the world.

Just when we were about to give up and reevaluate the plan, Deskie got up and walked over to Bookie.  She said something we couldn’t hear, and then turned and began walking toward the door we were standing next to.

“Oh crap, she’s leaving!”

“Yeah, that’s great and all, but she’ll catch us.”

We frantically looked around for a place to hide, but it was just a school hallway.  There wasn’t anything that convenient unless we ran downstairs, at which point someone else would probably catch us.

“Wait, the lockers!”

“Huh?”

Hay crawled away from the window, stood up, and pulled the nearest locker open.

“The tall ones aren’t locked because the janitors sometimes use them.”  She pulled the next closest tall locker open.  “Get in.”

Could this work?  I mean, in high school movies, bullies shoved kids into lockers.  But were they actually big enough to fit an almost-adult body?  Neither of us was fat or anything, but we also weren’t particularly short or super-skinny like the nerdy kids in the movies that usually got stuffed into lockers.

There was really no time to stew over it, though.  It was do or…repeat, I guess.

Hay ducked inside of the first locker and twisted her body enough to fit vertically, then tried to wiggle her lower half into the tiny space.  Fitting her ass inside was slightly an issue, and she was taking too long, so I pushed her hip and she finally popped completely in.

Now there was very little time for myself, but I didn’t have to struggle much.  I was taller, so I had to duck more, but as you may have noticed if you’re an actual living, breathing person, girls usually have curves in places that dudes don’t, so I didn’t have to worry about fitting my ass inside quite as much.

I reached out and closed the door from the inside, contorting my arm in a way that I didn’t know was possible, but I was in.  And very uncomfortable.

But the important part was that we were hidden, and just in the nick of time.  The library door almost immediately creaked open, and the footsteps of Deskie clapped by outside the lockers.  My mind raced, quickly calculating about how much time we’d have.  The faculty bathrooms were by the teacher’s lounge on the first floor, and if I had to guess, that’s exactly where Deskie was heading.  If I was correct, we had at least a five minute window, possibly a good bit more.  And if I was wrong, well, we’d find out the hard way.

I pushed the locker door open and quickly stretched my legs and arms.  Having to hide in that locker was definitely a good reason to not have to repeat this process, so we needed to get this correct on the first try.

Hay’s locker door opened, and I watched as she flailed a bit trying to get out.  Curious, I walked over and stared at her, a smile spreading quickly across my face.

“Are you stuck in there?”

“Shut up.”

“You’re stuck in there.”  I snorted.

“Don’t you dare make any jokes about my butt.”

“I don’t really think I have to.”

She glared at me.  “Help me out you jerk.”

In fairness, the lockers weren’t exactly meant to house the human body, and if Hay fell on either side of the spectrum, she skewed toward being thinner, but it was still hilarious.

I grabbed her hand and pulled, and she fairly easily popped out of her tiny metal prison.  From the way that her arms were contorted inside the locker, she just couldn’t get the leverage to do it herself.

“You’re awful,” she pouted.

“Yeah, I know.  But we gotta hurry, so come on.”

Bookie was still messing with books, so if we could be quiet and stay ducked behind the numerous tables and shelves between Bookie and the librarians’ desks, it may just be possible to steal the key without ever being noticed.

“Should we both go?”

“No, double the chance to make noise, double the chance to be seen.  This is a one person job.”

“You want me to-”

“No.  Let me.  If Deskie comes back, distract her.  You’re much better at that than I am.  That way we still have a backup plan.”

“Deskie?”

“The librarian from yesterday.”

“Yeah, I got that from the context clues…”

“Is this really the time to criticize my nicknames?”

“I think you probably deserve it.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Alright, fine.  How’s the plan sound though?”

“Good, let’s do it.”

I crawled below the glass, peeked to make sure Bookie wasn’t looking, then slowly and carefully pulled the library door open.  I winced as it make a slight creak, but Bookie didn’t notice.  Between the door and the first row of tables, there was nothing to hide behind, so I got on my hands and knees and crawled as quickly as I could until I had some cover.

I followed the tables, careful to be light on my feet, then ducked behind a shelf, then more tables, and another shelf.  Bookie still had no idea, and the desks were right in front of me.  I carefully crept around, slid out the drawer that Deskie had pulled the key from, and rummaged through it.

Amongst the numerous office supplies, a bag of potato chips, and a neck pillow, I managed to produce two keys.  One of them had to be the right key, so at most, I’d have to try twice without being seen.  Not the worst odds, I suppose, but the key locker was in plain sight, so I would be in plain sight while attempting to unlock it.

I peeked above the desk, confirmed that Bookie was still absorbed in her task, then popped up and tried the first key.  It inserted, but didn’t turn, because of course I wouldn’t pick the right key on the first try.

Without hesitating, I ducked back behind the desk just to wait for what felt like the right time to try the second key.  As soon as Bookie picked up another stack off books off the cart, I went for it.  The second key slid into the keyhole just as easily as the first, but this one turned, which made me breathe a sigh of relief even though I was pretty sure it was the right key.

Opening the key locker was another issue entirely, though.  There were three rows, each with five columns, each with a set of keys hanging there, practically mocking me.

Crap.

Should I just try to grab them all?  There’s no way I could hold that many, and they’d jingle in my pocket, which was the last thing I wanted.  Of course this couldn’t have gone smoothly.

The keys were each labeled with a letter and a number, so at the very least, once I found the right key, I would know which one unlocked the lab from there on out, but finding the right one in the first place was the challenge.

I’d have to just grab as many as I could and try with those.  I didn’t see another option, and I couldn’t just crouch there all day.  Bookie was still engrossed in organizing books, so I popped up, grabbed the first row of keys, and stealthily snuck back to the door.

I grabbed the handle to exit, when suddenly I heard a voice from behind me.  “Hey, what are you doing in here?”

Crap, Bookie had seen me.  No time to think.

I opened the door, grabbed Hay and showed her the handful of keys.  “She saw me, I have five keys to try.  Just keep her away from me, and when I give the signal, run.”

Hay nodded and propped herself up against the library door.  I was very glad at that moment that Hay was a quick thinker.

I ran across the hall and immediately began jamming keys in the door.  The first one didn’t go in at all.  The second one inserted but didn’t turn, as did the third.  The fourth one didn’t go in, and the fifth didn’t turn.

“Hey, I can’t hold this for much longer.”  I looked over and saw that Hay was losing ground.  Bookie was taller and bigger than Hay, so it made sense that she’d be winning their contest.

I began inserting the keys again, just to make sure.  “Damn.”  They definitely didn’t work.  I quickly noted the number and letter combination on each.  1A through 1E.  Of course librarians would be well-organized. Tomorrow’s iteration, we’d have to try 2A through 2E, and if none of those worked, we’d have narrowed it down to the correct row – 3A through 3E.  But for now, we’d lost.  The rest of the iteration was shot.

I threw the keys down and ran over to Hay.  The door was open a few inches, so I reared back and pushed myself into it.  Bookie got knocked back a few steps, and while she was disoriented, I grabbed Hay.

“Let’s get out of here.”

July 17

3 – Events

I awoke from a dreamless sleep and knocked my phone off the nightstand trying to turn it off.  What a fine start to the day.

My phone buzzed on the floor.  I picked it up and stared at the screen.

“You up?”

We hadn’t been to school in a week or so of iterations.

“Yeah.  School or no?”

“Up to you.”

“I guess we can go today.”

I sighed and got began getting dressed.  For some reason, I felt a little more carefree this morning, like it didn’t matter what I wore or if I was a tad more reckless than usual.  By this point, being carefree was a foreign feeling, and I struggled to think of what could be the cause.

Regardless, I had to get to school to meet Hay, so I continued my morning routine and wound up pulling into the parking lot just after her.

“You’re later than me.”  She paused and cocked her head a little.  “That’s…weird.”

“Yeah, I guess I dragged out getting dressed a little.”

Hay pulled out an oatmeal bar and began chewing her way through it.  There was a 50/50 chance she’d have that oatmeal bar for breakfast while walking with me.  She me once that her hunger never varied, but her attitude toward when she got around to eating breakfast did.  Translated, she didn’t want to do the same thing every day.

We walked toward the school building, past the crossing guard, and headed in the front doors.  Right on time.

Mrs. Chen stood at the front of the room as usual, and we took our seats.  The 7:45 tardy bell rang right on cue, and Mrs. Chen began taking attendance.  Shockingly, everyone was there, and attendance went by quickly.

It was the first time I’d been to class in a while, but it was like I’d never skipped.  I didn’t have to turn in a note from my parents, didn’t have to make excuses, and certainly didn’t care either way.

Seeing Mrs. Chen made me sad.  Like, not in the way that a dead pet makes one sad, or in the way that a breakup can devastate a person.  Rather, it was like her very existence angered me.  She shouldn’t be there every day.  She shouldn’t be there unchanging, unknowing every single day.  I knew it wasn’t Mrs. Chen’s fault, but I wanted to yell at her and ask her why she couldn’t tell me what was going on.  I wanted her to tell us why she didn’t believe us the first 30 times we told her what was happening to us, trying desperately to get advice from the only authority on science that we knew.

It just made me sad that even if I expressed that anger to her, she’d just forget it all the next day and I’d be angry all over again.  I couldn’t do anything about it; I had no outlet, so it just made me sad.  And it drove me closer to breaking.  Lately, it seemed that things like this would stack up,  Every day something that didn’t bother me before would slowly start to bother me, and now, I was running out of options on what to do about it.

I instinctively stood up without any warning.

“Hey, are you-” Hay started.

“I have to go.  We have to go.  Hay, I’m-”

“Excuse me, Brendon, is there a problem?”  Mrs. Chen probably looked annoyed, but I didn’t even glance at her.

“Yeah, I have to go.  Hay, can we please?”

The class started murmuring, but I barely paid attention to the looks of confusion and chatter that always happened when I did weird stuff like this.

Hay instinctively grabbed her bag and stood up.

“Brendon,  Hayley, please sit down, this isn’t-”

“Sorry Mrs. Chen, we gotta go,” Hay said flatly.  There was no point in sugar-coating it.  If we had to leave, we had to leave.

I felt like I was starting to break.  These little things setting me off was dangerous.  I’d have to stay home for a month or two of iterations to fix this.  Maybe more.  A week wasn’t nearly enough.  It felt like my brain was melting in my head.

“Good morning students and faculty.”  The morning announcements had started, but they were the least of my concerns.  I grabbed Hay’s hand – gently – and rushed to the door.

“I will be reading morning announcements today due to yesterday’s unfortunate events.”

I stopped cold in the doorway of the classroom.

“Brendon, Hayley, I will write you up for this if you don’t sit down right now,” Mrs. Chen went on.

“I will be reading morning announcements today due to yesterday’s unfortunate events.”

Principal Groves’ words echoed in my head.  Was I going crazy?  Did I hear him correctly?

I immediately started walking again, but this time, with a different conviction.  The exit that would take us back to the student parking lot was to the right when leaving the classroom, but I went left.

The events yesterday were that Mrs. Daniels, the vice principal, had gotten into a wreck.  She was fine, but she was out for a while and couldn’t do the morning announcements.  We didn’t remember anything about the wreck from August 27th, but over the course of around 16,000 iterations of the same day, we’d had plenty of time to learn what the principal was talking about.

“Where are you going?  The lot is-”

“The announcement.  You didn’t hear it?”

“I wasn’t paying attention, Mrs. Chen was talking to us and you were in such a rush.  Why?”

The office at the end of the hall was closed, but I pushed the door open without knocking.  The secretary stared at us, a bit confused at first.  Barging in wasn’t exactly normal.

“Can I help you?”

“No,” I said, walking past her.  It was rude, but I didn’t care.  Not right now.

“Excuse me, you can’t just go in there.”

I turned the knob to the office beyond her desk and pushed the door open.  Principal Groves looked up from his desk, possibly a bit startled, but still with the dry, unamused look he always seemed to have on his face.

“When did you record the morning announcements?” My voice was unusually stern.  I’m sure the principal wasn’t used to demands from students.

“What are you doing barging in here?” he demanded in return.

“Please, just answer me.  It’s more important than you could possibly begin to imagine.”

“Yesterday evening.  Now can you please tell me what’s going on?”

“Can I see your notes from the recording?  Where are they?”

He looked down at his desk, then back up at me.  “Son, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you’re going to be in a heck of a lot more trouble than you’re already in if you don’t explain yourself.”

I walked over and grabbed the stack of papers on the corner of his desk that he’d briefly glanced at.

He yelled something at me.  I didn’t care.

“Brendon, what are you looking for?” Hay asked.

The top paper was useless.  Nope, not the next one either.

But then, jackpot.  Third down were his notes.  They were messy, but it was what I needed to see: what he said every day in the announcements, line by line.  He always sounded like he was reading from a script, but it was never something worth looking into.

And right there at the top of the page were the words I was looking for.

“I will be reading morning announcements today due to yesterday’s events.”

“Yesterday’s events!” I shouted.  “Why did you change it?”

“Young man, I don’t think you understand the seriousness-”

“Why didn’t you read the script word for word?”

The color drained from Hay’s face.

“What?” she said, her eyes wide in disbelief.

“In the announcements this morning, you added a word.  You said ‘unfortunate events.’  That’s not what your script says.”

Principal Groves got up from his desk and gave me a death stare.  “I don’t care what the script says!  I’ve had it with you!”

“Something changed?” Hay said.

I stood there in as much disbelief as Hay was in, despite having heard the words myself.

“Something changed.”  I muttered the words almost emotionlessly.

I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but I’d heard those announcements literally thousands of times.

Principal Groves began walking towards us, and suddenly I found myself being pulled out of the office by Hay.  We ran side by side out of the building, possibly the first time we’d ever run in those hallways.  I didn’t know for sure, but that was kind of weird to think about.

We didn’t talk, we just moved as fast as we could to our cars.

“They’re going to call our parents, we can’t stay at your house.” Hay said.

“I know.”  This was too important, we needed to talk about this.  We couldn’t get grounded today, it just wasn’t an option.  “Meet at the motel?”

“Yeah, see you there.”

It was only 10 minutes away, but the drive felt much longer.  I was incredibly impatient; my head wouldn’t stop racing with questions.  But, finally, I pulled into the parking lot with Hay just behind me.

It was some locally owned motel.  A little nicer than most, but still a motel.  It was one of the only places I knew of that allowed 18 year olds to check in, so we’d used it on occasion.  Probably not for what you’re thinking we used it for.

Hay and I rushed through the check-in process, and I paid in cash with the same bills that just reappeared in my wallet every morning that I’d used to buy literally thousands of other things.  I guess it’s pretty fortunate I wasn’t flat broke on August 27th, otherwise we’d have to steal money from our parents to do this kind of stuff, and that was one of those moral lines that was kind of hard to cross barring absolute necessity.

Usually when we checked it, we got room 105, but sometimes we got 109.  It depended on the time of day, we’d figured out, but it was always one of those two rooms.  Today, it was 109, which was my favorite because it was closer to the vending machines.

As soon as I’d closed the door behind us, all of the anticipation and anxiousness began pouring out.

“How the hell could the recording change?”

“I don’t know.  Everything we know about how this system works is screaming at me that it’s not possible.”

“Everyone and everything resets at midnight, so if Principal Groves made the recording in the evening of August 27th, the recording wouldn’t reset – it’s totally unaffected.”

I sat down in one of the two chairs arranged around a small table by the window.  Hay took the other chair, pushed her flats off with her feet, and sat cross-legged.

“We don’t know enough about the recording.  Have we ever looked at it before?”

“I don’t think so.”  I paused, resting my chin on my hand for a moment.  “What format is it even in?”

“I always figured it was a DVD.”

“No, I think they just record the announcements with a basic point-and-shoot, so it’s gotta be a video file.”

“Could someone have altered the file?”

“Even if that were the case, we’d still be looking at an unprecedented situation.”

“If that video file changed, then other things can change.  We have to figure out the cause.”

“I don’t even know where to start.”

“We start by stealing the video file.

Hay arched an eyebrow at me.  “How do you propose we do that?”

“I can do it.  I just need some time to prepare, and a little help.”

“Anything.  Name it.”

We spend the rest of the evening and night planning out our next iteration in the loop.  We’d have to be late for school, and I’d need a distraction, but it could work.  Maybe.  And if it didn’t, we had an endless number of retries.

My parents had called earlier wanting to know where I was.  I told them I was at David’s house working on a school project.

David, my best friend before all of this.  David, now a complete stranger.  To him, we didn’t hang out today at recess.  To me, I hadn’t talked to him in a lifetime.

As it got later, we laid down on the bed and continued planning, but by that time, we were both exhausted.  I fell asleep with Hay on my shoulder.  It was the last thing I remember seeing before waking up again to my stupid phone alarm screeching in my ear.

If I could have one small wish granted in this hell of a world, it would be that if I fell asleep next to her, she’d be there when I woke up.  It may seem small in the big picture, but I could never share a morning with the girl I’d loved for 40-something years.  It was cruel to always wake up alone.

July 13

2 – Memories

When you recall a memory, you’re actually recalling the last time you made that recollection.  It’s how memories can change over time.  When every day is the same, those memories become tangled up in ways that it is nearly impossible to describe.  We’d skipped school and driven to the beach many times, but when was the last time?  Without the concept of days of the week and unique events occurring on those days, everything just melted together into a giant pool of inseparable recollections.

Sometimes I didn’t know if a memory I had was before the repetitions began or after.  I knew for certain that Hay had just moved to town, and before the August 28th started repeating, we didn’t know each other. I knew for certain that on repetition number two, we figured out that it was only the two of us that knew the repetitions were happening, and I knew that it took about a year’s worth of repetitions for us to start dating.

At least it was easy to remember our anniversary.

Sorry, that’s a little of my hopelessly depressing humor for you.  I have to find comedy in tragedy sometimes to keep sane.

Other than important things like that, it was impossible to keep track of what happened when.  Notebooks reset at 12AM.  Computers, phones, whatever – it all reset at 12AM every day, asleep or awake.  Anything we recorded onto any medium was wiped out of existence.

If events were unique enough, which was rare and basically always tied to Hay, I could usually at least put a descriptor on it.  Like, our first kiss was a very, very long time ago.  That talk we had about us never being able to have kids…at least 10 years worth of iterations ago.  Maybe 20.

Okay, so maybe I couldn’t be super descriptive.

The point I’m trying to make is that our memories are patchworks of thoughts grafted together from various iterations of August 28th, and then a smattering of important things from before that.  I knew my parents, of course, and I remembered things like their birthdays and favorite meals, but I have no idea what happened on August 27th, or August 26th, or really any other non-memorable date.  We didn’t even consider that August 27th might be important until a month (or maybe two months?  Three?) of iterations had passed, and by then, recalling details of just another mundane day had already become difficult.

I guess that’s my only memory of the day before this all began – it was just another mundane school day.  Hay remembers it the same way.  We can patch together a few things about August 27th based on the many iterations of August 28th and the thousands and thousands of chances we’d had to ask people about the day before, but we had no way to record any of it.  Important details we could commit to memory if we really tried, but it required concentration and studying.  Anything else disappeared into the aether.

The thing is, though, we didn’t know if there was even anything important about August 27th.  The one thing we did have was time, so we tried for years worth of iterations to figure out what could’ve triggered the repetition of this day.  The fact that I was sitting there in Hay’s second period class should tell you just how successful we were.

I hadn’t even bothered going to my second period to fake sick or ask to go to the bathroom.  I just walked into Hay’s classroom and announced that my teacher had to abruptly leave and I was being dispersed to this class.

Voilà.

“Hey, Hay,” I said as I sat behind her.  Rodney Tillerman snickered at my greeting – just like he’d done thousands of times.  I barely even heard him anymore, as I’d trained myself to just ignore it.

“Hey Brendon.”

Our greetings were concise on purpose.  We used to make small talk; tried the standard goofy greetings, made jokes like “long time no see,” even though I just saw her three minutes ago and spent almost every waking hour of my life with her.  But in an abnormal situation, societal norms like that just didn’t seem to make sense.

Mr. Dolman taught Hay’s civics class.  He was really awkward, or at least, he seemed that way to me.  I’d lived more days than he had for sure, but his days were real days that he could spend learning and growing in the ways that people are supposed to.  I didn’t have that luxury, despite my mind’s age being somewhere around 60 years old.

One of the things that repeating days teaches you is that you can do anything you want.  There were literally no consequences to skipping school, cursing at a teacher, stealing a car, burning a pile of money; literally none of it mattered.  In one repetition, I even broke an arm to basically no fanfare but a few hours of pain.  No matter where I was, no matter what I was doing, when the clock struck 12AM I blacked out, and upon waking, I was in my bed, and it was August 28th again.  And the damned alarm on my phone was going off.

Having no consequences to my actions had made me more confrontational.  I mean, I certainly wasn’t worried about appearances, so there was no reason not to do and say exactly as I wanted…except that Hay would hear it.  Having her kept me in check.  If I did something awful, she’d always remember it, so I tried not to do awful things.  It may sound terrible, but being stuck in this God-forsaken loop did a number to your senses.  It wasn’t easy not to just rage all day at people sometimes.  But even if other people didn’t remember it, we would, and if we ever escaped from this loop, we’d have to live with whatever we did while we were in it.

We may have been barely hanging on to our sanity, but our humanity was firmly in place.

However, confrontation wasn’t necessarily an evil or even bad thing.  Argumentative, maybe, but it could just be a squaring off of the minds.  Or so I told myself.

There were some iterations where I argued with various teachers.  For a while, I passed most of my time by reading books.  It was one of the few things I could do that wasn’t affected by the repetitions.  Sure, bookmarks were useless at the end of the day, but it was easy enough to remember a page number.  I read all of the books in my house, including my school text books.  Weirdly enough, when I had no reason to learn, I actually started to find them quite interesting, so I read most of them a few times.  I didn’t remember everything from them, but I definitely remembered the parts that I found the most interesting.

Having read those books over and over, it made me more cognizant of the fact that teachers would misrepresent some concepts on purpose.  Or, well, I assumed that most teachers did it, because Mr. Dolman was about to do it, and it would drive me nuts.

“So, wait, the money isn’t backed by anything?”

“It’s not backed by any physical thing, no,” Mr. Dolman explained.  “Instead, it’s backed by the trust our citizens have in it.  The US dollar is what is referred to as ‘fiat money.'”

“And the Federal Reserve just prints it?”

“They do.  They control the money supply this way as well.”

Here it comes.

“If the Federal Reserve can print money, why don’t they just print money to pay off the federal debt?”

“Well if they did that, it would devalue the rest of the money supply due to the influx of new money into the market.”

Could I bite my tongue today?

“What, not going to say anything?” Hay whispered.

“What’s the point?” I sighed.

“That’s never stopped you before.”

But I didn’t feel like saying anything today, so I kept my mouth shut, and Mr. Dolman’s class took route B.  Route C was when I corrected Mr. Dolman, and he had to explain to the class that what he’d just said was technically not true, but wasn’t important to the context of the lesson.  Route A was when I stayed in my own class, Tracy Morris didn’t sneeze, and Justin Clements didn’t ask to go to the bathroom.  Maybe there were other small differences, but those were the ones that Hal pointed out to me.

Like I said, we were the only ones that could affect change in this world.  Even the smallest, seemingly harmless act changed just enough to make the day different than if I’d done nothing at all.  I couldn’t really explain why, though I had my wild theories.

There were many, many different routes Mr. Dolman’s class took, but B and C were the most common.  A almost never happened anymore.  A was too lonely.

It probably sounds incredibly silly to say that a class full of people is lonely, but it’s absolutely and horrifyingly undeniable to me.  Could you imagine being stuck in a video game where every person you meet always does the same thing, every path is linear and only branches off based on choices you make?  Because that’s our entire existence.  The only escape I have from that is interacting with Hay.

I didn’t feel like expending any effort, so I continued down route B all the way until third period.  It may sound dull – and trust me, it was – but it was more entertaining sitting through class than staying at home and doing nothing since we had no better plans for the day.  Either way, I was with Hay, so what did it matter?

Marty – Mr. Randal, as we were supposed to call him – had eaten something that didn’t agree with his stomach that morning.  It wasn’t that he announced it to the class, it’s just that I figured it out one iteration by following him…to the bathroom, and I’ll stop there, because the rest of the story is about how you’d expect it to go, and ended with me quickly exiting the bathroom.

Anyway, as soon as Marty left the room, Hay pulled out her laptop as planned and started playing Portal.  Now, you might imagine the class snickering or going a little nuts trying to figure out why Hay was playing a video game in the middle of class when we were supposed to be reviewing a chapter in our textbook, but then you’d be just as surprised as we were the first time she did it.  It draws attention, sure, but then our classmates just pulled out their phones and started playing mobile games and texting their friends, so really, what was the difference other than the size of the device they were screwing around on?

Hay’s record was a level that was about halfway through the game.  That may seem impressive, but there were people on the Internet that did speed-runs of the entire game in around 20 minutes, so Hay wasn’t quite at their level yet.  If she really wanted to, she could certainly do it.  After all, she had all of the time in the world.

At exactly the right moment, Hay picked up her laptop (having not beaten her record yet again), immediately followed by Marty’s re-entrance.  A couple of kids got in trouble for having their phones out – as per usual – but Hayley never did, and no one else said anything since they were all just as guilty.

It was truly a standard iteration of August 28th.  All routes we’d been down before, nothing even remotely new.  Not that I expected different, but even after 40-something years worth of reliving this day, I still had this weird hope that one day, something would surprise me.  Even just the smallest thing.

Anything to escape the monotony.

The rest of third period I spaced out thinking about what we could possibly do tomorrow that would be more exciting than sitting through classes again.  Urban exploration?  We’d been to a closed-down theme park a couple (few?) dozen or so times.  That was pretty cool as long as we spaced out our visits enough.  But hadn’t we just gone a couple months of iterations ago?  Or was it a couple years?  Ugh.

I could feel that part of mind start to activate; the part that slowly chipped away at my sanity.  Luckily, we’d learned to notice the signs, and it was a slow creep that we could kinda control.

“Hay, do you wanna just skip fourth period and go home?  This iteration is far too monotonous.  I’m kinda feeling it.”

‘Feeling it.’  Hay understood what that meant.  It may sound quite ambiguous and innocuous, but we’d both had bouts of…well, I don’t know what to call it but ‘tantrums bordering insanity.’  Hysterical crying and screaming, pounding our fists into the bed, floor, whatever.  Lashing out at others, but never each other.  She could bring me back, and I could bring her back, but it took time.  Fortunately, or I guess unfortunately, that was something we had plenty of.

To spend our lives here meant to constantly be on the edge of our sanity.  It was a daily struggle.  I could never explore the world.  I could never finish a video game that I hadn’t already mostly completed.  I could never order things from the Internet because we didn’t have any same day delivery services.  Even if we acquired some new thing, it would be gone in a matter of hours and we’d have to acquire it again.

Everything compounds and compounds until it’s unbearable.  I shudder to think of living in this world alone.  If I didn’t have Hay, I don’t know what I’d do.

When the bell rang to switch classes, we ditched and went back to my house in our separate cars.  No one guarded the school outside of recess to make sure students didn’t leave, so we didn’t even have to fake being sick or whatever.  We just left.  It was almost upsettingly easy.

My parents were at work for a few more hours, and we got off of school before they got off work anyway, so my house was the easiest to go back to at times like these.  Hay’s mom worked from home, so we couldn’t go to her house or we’d get caught.  Sure, she’d wake up the next day and have no consequences, but the rest of the day was shot if her mom found out we’d ditched school.  Hay would get grounded, and then she’d be stuck in her house without her phone for the rest of the day.  She could just walk out of the house, but then her mom would be worried until the day reset.  It’s just one of those things that was easier to avoid.

As soon as we got home, I went to my room and sprawled out on the bed.  Hay sat down beside me and stared at the wall opposite the bed.

“How many times can this happen?” she asked.

She was referring to my reaction to the monotony.  “I don’t know.”

“There’s a limit,” she said.  “One of these days, we won’t come back from it.”

These reactions had only started a few years ago.  You’d think the monotony would’ve driven us insane earlier, but I suppose our aging minds couldn’t recover quickly enough.

“I don’t know what we can do about it.”

“We could try looking for a way out again…”

I laughed.  There was no other possible reaction.  Hay didn’t respond because she knew it too.  She sighed and laid back, resting her head on my stomach.

“We’ll die here,” she said, now staring at the ceiling.

“I know.”

“One way or another, we’ll die here.”

“I know.”

June 30

1 – Repeat

This story is unedited.  It really needs to be edited pretty badly.  Fair warning.

 

——-

I slammed my hand groggily into my phone trying to find the button that would turn off the obnoxious alarm that was ringing in my ear.  Every day I wished I could get up later; every day I schemed a way to turn it off, but after the first two or three hundred times, I gave up.  I still thought about it often, but it seemed like I was doomed to wake up at 7AM for all of eternity.

The phone immediately buzzed with a notification.

“You up?”

“Yeah.  Going to school today?”

“Unless you have a better idea.”

“I don’t.  See you there, I guess.”

Hayley was my only real friend.  I had other people I called friends, but it was an act.  Every day I talked to them, every day I acted like nothing was wrong; nothing was different.  Like I was the same old Brendon they knew from the day before.

I threw on a pair of clothes that I hoped I hadn’t worn yesterday.  Khaki shorts, a bright blue t-shirt, black Vans.  I doubted anyone would say anything if this was the combination from the day before, since no one ever had.

There were days that I cared more than others about school.  There was a completed homework assignment in my bag, just like every morning.  I knew what it was because it was always the same, but I could never remember the teacher assigning it.  Today, I wasn’t in the mood for school.  I was hoping Hay would tell me to meet her at her house, but after a while of doing that, going to school flipped over to being the more interesting thing to do.

My car had a quarter tank of gas.  Sometimes I needed to fill it if Hay and I decided to take a trip, but usually the quarter tank was enough.  School was a mile away, and traffic wasn’t bad.  I guess I was lucky in that regard.  If traffic were bad today, it would be bad every day, and going to school would be a 20 minute affair instead of a 5 minute casual drive.

I took my usual spot in the student parking lot, then leaned against the trunk to wait the minute and 30 seconds for Hay to show up.  She was always on time, despite her being the only variable in my life.  Funny how that worked, but it was for the best.  If Hay wasn’t dependable, I’d have gone mad long ago.

“Hey, Brendon.”

“Hey, Hay.”  The first handful of times I’d greeted her in this way, she rolled her eyes at the corniness, but it had been forever since she’d so much as batted an eye at it.  Other people in our class always had the same reaction, though.  Laughs, giggles, eye rolls, surprise.  I was used to it.

She took her bag out of the back seat and handed it to me.  “Hold this for a sec?”

“Sure.”  I took the bag and watched as she reached back in her car and pulled out another bag.

“You brought your laptop?”

“Marty’s class.”  Ah, Mr. Martin Randal, our 3rd period English class.  He leaves the room ten minutes after class starts and comes back 15 minutes later.

“Oh, Portal again?”

Hay had done this before, but it had been a while.  Marty leaves class, she immediately pulls out her laptop and starts a new game of Portal.  Her objective is to progress as far as she can before Marty returns.  Having that particular game already on the laptop was a blessing and a curse.  The game consisted of solving various puzzles, and if you played the levels enough times, you could complete them almost robot-like.  In turn, Hay got faster and faster at completing the levels, but the game had little to no variance in the beginning, so after playing it a certain amount of times, it became less fun.  For that reason, Hay had come up with this meta-game of trying to complete as much as possible before Marty returned.  It was less about playing the game itself and more about the concept of beating her own record.

I carried Hay’s regular bag since she had the laptop already.  She offered to take it back, but I refused.  This situation had probably played out before, but in the context of a regular day, many situations often repeated themselves.  It was only natural.

She glanced at me.  “You gonna bathroom break for 2nd period today, or should I?”

“I will.”

It was the only class we didn’t have together.  Not being with Hay during second period was lonely – a feeling she reciprocated – so we took turns coming up with excuses to leave our own class, then go sit in on the other’s class.  Usually we took bathroom breaks or said we were sick.  Either excuse always worked without fail.  There was no real reason to switch them up other than that we wanted to.

We walked past the crossing guard that guided us safely across the street every morning.  He smiled and nodded at us, and I flashed a quick smile in return.  My interactions with most people had become like this, except the times I was particularly frustrated.

The bell rang right as we walked into the school yard, which signaled students to head to homeroom.  We timed it like this on purpose.  There was no point in arriving early, and there was no way we’d be late.  We had things like that down to a science.

Homeroom was with Mrs. Chen – a fact I’d be forever thankful for.  Mrs. Chen had been married exactly three weeks ago by looking at the calendar.  She’d  gotten back from her honeymoon exactly two days ago, a fact I only knew because in about 15 minutes, she’d show us a slide show of herself and her husband and tell us about about Hawaii, how wonderful it was, and how she’s still floating even though she’s been back for two days.

In short, her mood was as good as it would every be, and she was already a nice person to begin with.  It was the most opportune time to get away with anything I wanted to do – namely, sleep.

We took our time walking across the school yard.  The line to get through the doors and into the building was long, so there was no point in rushing.  We’d make it inside in time.  Our school didn’t use lockers since all of our books were digital.  Strolling down the hall brought us right through the middle of the Locker Graveyard, as we called it.  Walls and walls of the things, a staple in high school movies, completely unused.  It was strange in a way – or at least, it used to be – but I’d certainly rather carry an eReader or tablet that weights less than a pound over 10 or more pounds of heavy books.  My mom blames her scoliosis on that very thing.

My desk was next to the wall when you walked into the classroom.  Hay’s was behind mine.  Brendon Walker, Hayley Wilson – it was like that in every class since they all had assigned seating in alphabetical order.  It was a stroke of the most fortunate luck we could have, I guess.

We took our seats, a few seconds passed, the clock struck 7:45, and the final bell rang.

Homeroom was 10 minutes long – five for attendance and settling in, and the other five for morning announcements.  Mrs. Chen quickly went through attendance since every seat was filled except for the two behind Corey Yates, which were extra, and thus always empty.

“You plan on having any fun today?” Hay whispered.

I shrugged.  “Haven’t decided yet.  Later, maybe.”

“Gonna try to sleep again, huh?”

“After the slideshow.”

“I don’t know how you manage to sleep like that.”

“I don’t know how you manage to have so much energy.”

The TV in the front of the classroom turned from black to the school logo, and Principal Groves appeared on screen.  I forgot who did the announcements before, but judging by his body language and general temperament on camera, it didn’t see like something he wanted to do.

“Good morning students and faculty.  I will be reading morning announcements today due to yesterday’s events.”  He shuffled some papers on the desk in front of him, then continued in his usual rehearsed-sounding tone.  “The PTA meeting next week has been postponed until the end of September.  Though emails have been sent out, please let your parents know if they’re in the PTA.”  More paper shuffling.  “Lunch in the cafeteria today will be chicken tenders, tater tots, fruit salad, and choice of milk, juice, or water.”

Hay poked me, and when I turned around, she pointed her finger at tongue and made a barfing sound.  I’d taken to skipping lunch, although sometimes I brought something to eat or at least pick on.  Hay couldn’t make anything more complicated than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so when she grew tired of that, she tried the cafeteria lunch for a while.  She’s gone back and forth ever since, but she was currently on the PB&J half of the cycle.

“Eventually you’re going to start skipping lunch too.”

“No way,” she practically snorted.  “Food is life.”

“If you weren’t rotating between chicken nuggets and peanut butter, I’d be less tempted to argue with you.”

“Brendon, Hayley, pay attention to the announcements,” Mrs. Chen said.  I think at one point in my life, getting scolded like that would’ve made us both turn beet red, but we were long past that.

“Sorry Mrs. Chen,” we replied in deadpan unison.

The announcements we’d talked over were about homecoming and a parking lot rule reminder.  Nothing important.

“…stay between the lines and hang your parking tag from your rearview mirror where it is easily visible.”  Mr. Groves did one final shuffling of papers.  “Lastly, please remember to silence all portable electronics while in class, and remember that no personal devices are allowed out except during breaks or when otherwise permitted by teachers.  Now, everyone get ready to focus on learning, and have a great day.”

The broadcast ended, and Mrs. Chen grabbed the remote for the TV, switching it to the input that was connected to her computer.

“Alright class, this morning we’re going to start off with a little personal show and tell.  I wanted to share a few pictures from my honeymoon in Hawaii.”

Right on schedule.

The first picture appeared on the TV – Mrs. Chen and her husband standing atop a cliff, the backdrop painted sky-blue and slowly melting into ocean.

“Mrs. Chen, he’s so handsome!” Hay whispered just loud enough for only me to hear in her normal, mocking tone.

“Mrs. Chen, he’s so handsome!” Emily exclaimed.

“Thank you, Emily!  I most certainly agree.”  Mrs. Chen was beaming.  She had a connection with the class that a lot of teachers failed to make, I think mostly because she was 26 years old.  I guess eight or nine years is a long time to them, but my intuition said Mrs. Chen still related to them because she still could easily look back fondly on her high school days.

The presentation continued with a few more cliffside pictures, some of the couple hiking, two near a waterfall, and a beach picture that I swear Mrs. Chen only included because of how proud she was of how she looked in that two-piece bikini.  Some of the other guys in class would make comments about it later.

“Alright, now, let’s go ahead and pick up where we left off on our discussion of the eukaryotic cellular structure.”  She switched the presentation from her bikini picture over to a PowerPoint that was actually relevant to class, then grabbed a dry erase marker.  “Yesterday, we covered the energy center of the cell, an organelle known as the…?”

A few hands shot up.

“Jason?”

“Mitochondria.”

“Correct, excellent.”  She drew a very poor sketch of a cell and added the mitochondria in, then added some squiggles, pointed to it, and said, “Today we’ll be looking at the endoplasmic reticulum.”

Because the next slide had a cell cross-section on it that was much more detailed than she could’ve possibly drawn, there was absolutely no point in her drawing the cell.  Mrs. Chen did unnecessary stuff like that, including showing us her honeymoon pictures.

However, “endoplasmic reticulum” was my cue to try and get some sleep.  I rested my head against the wall to my right, rubber-banded my pen to my thumb and forefinger, and deliberately let some of long-ish hair fall into my eyes.  It was a completely dumb plan.  Sometimes it worked for a whopping two minutes, sometimes it worked for the rest of the period.  It depending entirely on when I fell asleep and how I shifted while sleeping.

“Why do you even come to school if you’re just gonna go to sleep?” Hay whispered.

I didn’t answer.  She already knew the answer anyway.  I’d tried skipping first period before to sleep in late, but once the alarm goes off, I just can’t go back to sleep.  Ironically enough, listening to this boring lecture on endoplasmic reticulum was the only way I could get some sleep.

Plus, even if I was asleep, it was nice knowing Hay was around.

I jolted awake when the bell for second period went off.  “Whoa.”

“Did you sleep through the whole class?” Hay asked.

I nodded and rubbed my eyes.  Honestly, I’d found it to be about 20:1 odds that Mrs. Chen would wake me up within 15 minutes.  I’d gotten really lucky today.  This meant I’d finally have a day with a bit more energy than usual.

“Huh, well, glad it worked out.”  She stood up and pressed her skirt down where the edge had flipped up.  “See you in Mr. Dolman’s class, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “See you.”

She bent down and kissed me on the cheek, which was at least one thing that didn’t get old.

She smiled.  “Later.”

I watched Hay walk out of the classroom and sighed, mentally preparing for the conversation Brent had with me at the end of every class.  He sat right in front of me, so he often overheard our conversations.

“Whoa, are you dating Hayley?” he exclaimed.

“Yeah,” I said, picking up my bag off the floor.

“No way, I’ve never even heard you talking with her before today.”

“We’ve been dating for a while.”

“It couldn’t be longer than a few weeks, could it?  Didn’t she just-”

“We’ve known each other for a long time.”

I began walking toward the door, ignoring Brent in the way that I typically did when people inquired about Hayley and I.  No one could understand the situation we were in.  They wouldn’t even believe me even I told them – which, trust me, I’ve tried – so there was no point in repeating myself even more than I already did.

“Dude, I am so jealous.”

I kept walking.  “Yeah, I gotta go though, later Brent.”

“You better give me more details tomorrow!” he shouted.

The words stung in my ears, just like they always did.  No matter how I steered the conversation, it always led back to him finding out that Hay and I were dating, and he always asked for more details tomorrow.  I’d had the conversation with him how many times – tens of thousands?  I tried to keep count a while back, and I know it reached at least 2,000 before I gave up.  Last I asked, Hay said it was 15,457, but it had been a while.

Every day I woke up to August 28, 2018, and no one else but Hay remembered.  To my classmates, to my family, to my friends, it was just another day.  Tomorrow was a day away rather than a foreign concept.  My tomorrow was today, over and over and over again, for what was at least 42 years.  Probably 43 or 44 by now, since I didn’t ask Hay that often what the count was.  We’d spent a lifetime as 18 year olds, surrounded by clueless peers, in a situation we’d long given up escaping from.

Brent couldn’t possible understand how those words stung, yet I was subjected to them every single time I went to school.  My only option was to grin and bear it, so just like every day, I turned and smiled through my despair as I faced him from the doorway.

“Yeah, Brent.  I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

November 12

Six Years

It’s been a while since I tagged a story under the “Muse” category.  I don’t know if I’ve ever explained what that category means, but basically, they’re just stories that came to me in dreams.  Probably not the most traditional definition of a “muse,” or maybe not really even the definition at all.  But whatever.

Anyway, I don’t know how this one was supposed to end.  I haven’t written a love story in a while, and I feel like it falls a little flat in the end.  However, I’m posting it anyway because it’s been a while since I’ve posted something here, and my excuse is usually that I am not happy with something I wrote or that it’s not finished…but not this time!

——————

“Hey Ryan, you want something to drink?”

“Naw, I’m good,” I said, staring down at the smooth kitchen countertop, admiring the way it sparkled under the LEDs hanging overhead.  “Did your parents remodel?  I don’t remember the granite.”

“It’s quartz,” Ethan said.  “And yeah, they did.”

“Man, how long has it been since I’ve been here?  Six years?”

“Probably about that long, yeah.”

When we were kids, I was at Ethan’s house every weekend.  Now we had our own apartments in a different city, and this place where I spent much of my childhood felt so familiar, yet so foreign.

“When’s the last time you saw my sister?” he asked.

“I guess probably the last time I was here.”

“Wow, really?  That long?”

“If it wasn’t me being off at college, it was her.”

“Yeah, I guess so.  Just doesn’t feel like that long for some reason.”

“She home for the summer?”

“Yeah, she’s finally taking a break and not doing summer classes.”

I chuckled, remembering how hard his sister used to study.  She’d sometimes knock on Ethan’s door while I was over and tell us we were yelling at our video game too loudly while she was trying to do homework.

“Good for her.  She’ll miss college like a year after she graduates anyway.”

Ethan smiled.  “Feeling nostalgic already?”

“I’m not gonna lie, I miss the experience, but the classes…hell no.  I am so glad to be done with group projects.”

A door closed down the hall, causing me to arch an eyebrow.  “I thought your parents were out?”

“They are,” he said, lowering the glass of water he’d been sipping from.  “That’s Elaine.”

“Oh, I guess it didn’t click.  That’s why you brought her up?”

“Duh,” he said, rolling his eyes.

When she walked into the kitchen, I could feel my eyelids blinking at an unusual cadence.

“Elaine?” I said, not necessarily meaning to utter her name out loud.

“Ryan?  Oh my God, wow!  It’s been so long!”

Picture yourself as a 16-year old, and then again at 22.  In my late teens, I had long hair and wore whatever was cheap or handed down from my brother.  None of it fit right, and I didn’t much care.

At 22, I was wearing flannel button downs and slim, tapered jeans that ended in Red Wings that cost more than my entire warddrobe did in my teens.  And my hair?  Same as every other guy – short on the sides, long on the top, slicked back with American Crew.  Some people called it “hipster.”  My friends joked that I was a lumberjack.  But the point is that I was unrecognizable from my 16-year old self.

Honestly, my memory of 16-year old Elaine was a little blurry.  I remembered that she wore glasses for a while, and I think she went through a short goth phase.  Or maybe she just had a lot of black clothes?  She was cute, but I couldn’t really recall that she stood out.  Maybe that was because the last half a year or so that I’d been around her, I was dating Mindy Decker, which, if I’m still being honest, severely distracted me from looking at other girls.  I was sort of head-over-heels for her until we went out separate ways for college.

“Yeah,” I said, a bit flustered.  “Ethan and I were just talking about that.  Probably about six years.”

If I was unrecognizable from my 16-year old self, Elaine was, on the outside, a completely different person. She had on a patterned dress that was cut perfectly to accentuate her waist and hips, but stopped short at her thighs and made her legs seem impossibly long for her height.  She was no more than 5’2″, but from across the room, I’d have pegged her at least half a foot taller than that.  She wore thick-rimmed, tortoise shell glasses, and her chestnut hair flowed in waves down to her shoulders.

She was absolutely striking.  In a room full of people, she’s the one that would catch your eye, and everyone else would fall out of view.  It was almost unbelievable how different she looked.

Six years is a long time.

I got up off the barstool I’d been sitting on, trying to recognize the girl I used to know while she approached me for a hug.

“You look so different,” she said.  “You’ve got the whole lumberjack thing going on.”

Ethan snickered behind me.

“Yeah, uh…ditto on that, except for the lumberjack part,” I said, ignoring him.  “I barely recognized you.”

She laughed.  “I acquired a sense of style after you guys went off to college.”

“Tell Ryan what you’re majoring in,” Ethan said.  “No, wait.  Guess.  Based on what you’ve heard about her major, you’ll never get it right.”

I couldn’t remember what her hobbies had been back when we were kids, but it sounded like that wouldn’t have helped anyway.

“Uh…math?”

Ethan laughed.

“Close,” she said.

“Computer science?  Engineering?”

“Ah!  Very close!” she said.

“Which one?”

“The latter.”

Suddenly, Ethan’s comment made sense.  “Electrical engineering?”

“Bingo!” she said.  “Great guess.”

“Ethan gave me a hint,” I said.

“He did?”

“Our friend CJ was an EE major,” I said.  “There were no girls in his class.  Like, none at all.  He used to complain about it all the time, and it was a running joke amongst our group for a while.”

Elaine smiled and blushed a bit.  “Yeah, I’m the only girl in most of my EE classes.”

“That must be pretty rough.”

“Actually, it’s not that bad.  My friend John is in EE too.  It helps to know someone in any class, much less one that has a bit of a reputation for being a boy’s club.”

“Hey El, sorry to interrupt, but Ryan and I were about to head to Chili’s to meet up with Chad.”

“Oh, sorry to hold you guys up!  Tell Chad ‘hi’ for me.  I haven’t seen him in ages either.”

“No, it’s cool,” I said, pausing.  “Actually, if you’re down for whatever Chili’s is microwaving up tonight, you’re welcome to join us.  Maybe some drinks at Ginny’s after, too.”

She grinned.  “I’m meeting up with a friend tonight as well, actually.  But she has to leave around 7.  I’ll text Ethan when I’m done and meet up with you guys if you’re still out.”

As we pulled out of Ethan’s parents’ driveway, I couldn’t help but hope that I’d see Elaine later that night.  I could feel my heart beating a little faster as I thought about it, leaving absolutely no doubt that I’d suddenly developed the fastest crush of my life.

Do adults have crushes?  Is that what it’s called when a dude falls for a chick past high school?  Whatever, it doesn’t matter.  Maybe it wasn’t even that.  After all, what I knew of her was from 6 years ago, and those were foggy memories at best.  Was it just lust?  No, I wasn’t thinking about fucking her; I was thinking about talking to her – getting to know her better.  But I was also positively drawn to her vivaciousness, her style, and her beauty that seemed to pause time itself.  That’s what it felt like to fall for someone, right?

I didn’t enjoy my dinner that night, to be honest.  It wasn’t that the food was bad; no, it was fine for what it was.  The issue was that I was impatient and anxious, and talking with Chad and Ethan felt like the opening act to the main event, as awful as that sounds.  Yeah, they were some of my best friends, but that night, I knew what I wanted, and everything else seemed to not matter.

Ethan’s phone buzzed as we were leaving Chili’s to head to Ginny’s.  It was right after 7, and my anticipation had peaked and damn near erupted by that point.

“Is that your sister?”

“Can you look for me?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, grabbing his phone from the center console of his car, trying to remain calm.  It was so strange having this come over me.  I felt like a kid on Christmas morning pressing the button on the chin of his phone to see the notification.

El: Finished dinner.  Ginny’s?

“It’s her,” I said, miraculously managing to hide my excitement.

“She wants to know if we’re still going to Ginny’s, I think.”

“There’s no passcode.  Can you respond for me?”

“Sure.”

On our way right now.  Meet you there?

A few moments later, the phone buzzed.

El: Yep, be there in 10.

Cool.

I figured that was the end of the conversation, but as I went to put the phone back in the center console, it buzzed again.

El: So…don’t hate me.  Is Ryan single?

I froze, but my heart apparently didn’t get the message.  I could feel it thumping and could practically see it beating out of my chest.  Besides the obvious ‘holy shit, it’s kind of obvious why she’s asking that’ that ran through my mind, I also immediately had the problem of ‘how in the world did I answer that question?’

I could tell her ‘no,’ put the phone back down, and spare her the possible embarrassment.  But Ethan would see his messages probably as soon as parked his car, and then I’d have to explain to him why I didn’t tell her it was me.  Or I could just tell her it was me, but that would be horribly embarrassing, right?  Maybe it wouldn’t be if I just immediately told her I was digging on her too.

Wait, there was a third option I hadn’t yet considered: lock the phone, put it back in the console, and pretend like I’d never seen the message.  Then there was no embarrassment for her, there’d be nothing to explain to Ethan, and I still would have the knowledge that she asked.

I put the phone back in cupholder in the center console.  “She’ll be there in 10 minutes.”  I was cool, collected, absolutely perfect delivery.  He’d never suspect that I saw that message unless he was paying really close attention and heard the phone vibrate in my hand, which I doubted.

When we pulled up at Ginny’s, Elaine was stepping out of her car.  It was absolutely perfect timing.  Even if Ethan saw the message, even if he suspected that I saw the message, he wouldn’t be able to ask me about it until we were alone.  No way he’d say anything right in front of her.

I walked over to Elaine, pretending I didn’t notice Ethan checking his phone.  My heart was still thumping, which was compounded on when she glanced down at her phone, smiled, then looked back up at me.  Had Ethan replied?  Is that what she was smiling about?

“Hey,” she said, flashing what was quite possibly the most enchanting smile I’d ever seen.

“Glad you could make it,” I said.

“Yeah, me too.”  She paused, glanced behind her, then looked at Ethan, saying, “Hey, you mind if we catch up with you inside?”

“Sure,” he said, passing casually by me.  I looked over and saw the biggest shit-eating grin on his face that I’d seen in quite some time.

All I could think was, “Oh wow, is this happening?”  And she was the one taking the initiative?  Was this a dream?

But still, I feigned ignorance.  “What’s going on Elaine?”

“This is going to sound silly, maybe, but I just…it’s just something I have to tell you.”

Hmm, okay.  Not how I thought she would lead off.

“Sure, what is it?”

“Back when you were in high school…” she paused.  “God, I can’t believe I’m telling you this.  Back when you were in high school, I had a huge crush on you.”

That’s definitely not what I was expecting to hear.

“You did?” I said, feeling a little let down.

“Yeah.”  She laughed a little, looking down at her feet.  “When I saw you again, those feelings came rushing back to me.  I guess maybe they never went away.”

I stood there frozen, unsure what to say, despite having heard exactly what I’d been expecting to hear.

“It’s fine if you don’t feel the same way,” she said.  “I just wanted to tell you.”

“No, Elaine, I-” I paused.  “It’s not that.  To be honest, I didn’t really have any feelings for you six years ago, but I definitely felt something earlier today when we reconnected.”

She smiled.  “You know, I tried so many times to tell you how I felt when we were younger.  I finally got up the courage one day, swore to myself I was going to tell you, even told Ethan I was going to do it.  Then I found you were dating that girl…what was her name?  Mindy?”

“Wait a minute, Ethan knew you liked me?”

“Oh yeah, totally.  He found out by accident, but he swore he wouldn’t tell.  Apparently he never did, either.”

“No, he didn’t,” I said.  “But, I did sort of intercept that text you sent him earlier since he was driving.  I replied to your first text, saw the second one, then panicked and put his phone back down.”

“Wait, so you…oh man, that’s actually kind of funny.  So you were probably expecting this to happen?”

“I don’t know that I was expecting anything to happen tonight, but it was pretty clear to me why you asked him that question.”

She shook her head and laughed.  “I always knew I’d have to be the one to make the move, but I never really thought it would go down like this.”

I laughed.  “But it went okay, right?”

“If you’re agreeing to go on a date with me tomorrow night, then I’d say so.”

“Yeah, I’ll definitely agree to that.”

She smiled.  “Then yeah, this went pretty well.”

January 21

SASPER (Chapter 1, cyberpunk novel)

Chapter 1

Nathaniel Droyer raps his thumb against the bottom of the leather-clad steering wheel of his three-year old SASPER sedan as it carries him down I-10 east just outside of New Orleans.  The electric blue gauges cast a dim illumination into the car, but it is drowned out by the conglomerate glow of headlights and taillights leaking from outside.  Nate normally drives himself, but he’s exhausted from a long day in Baton Rouge, and he can barely keep himself awake.  He has to do at least that much, as he doesn’t trust autocruise quite as much as others seem to.  He needs to keep an eye on the car, just in case.

This is undoubtedly more boring than actually driving, but if he does fail to control his fatigue and drift off into some state of slumber, the consequences will be far less dire this way.  After all, Nate is very familiar with the statistics: last year there were just over 5 million traffic accidents caused by drivers of traditional cars, and only about 600 accidents total with a SASPER self-driving car at fault.  Considering their 22% market penetration, 600 accidents was a drop in the barrel.

Nate knows that statistics don’t lie, but he doesn’t want to become one of the marginal 600.  Paranoia is a major problem of his, but understanding, and consequently not trusting technology had gotten him this far.  He is on year 31 of his miraculous streak of not succumbing to death, after all.

Paranoia and willpower can only do so much to keep Nate awake, though.  He is almost back to the hotel, he knows if he can just hold out another 10 minutes, he’ll be able to rest safely in the bed he’d slept in for the past few days.  But the weight of his eyelids seems impossible to overcome.

What could go wrong in 10 minutes anyway?” he reassures himself.

Nate is abruptly awakened by the nightmarish sound of metal scraping, crunching, and compacting.  His car is stopped, and the display shows a string of notifications he’d not been awake to see.

“Impending collision detected.”

“Collision avoided.”

“External collision detected.”

“Rerouting; halting.”

Nate looks out the windshield and tries to discern what had happened.  He reaches out to the display and slides his finger across each notification.

“This city and its motherfucking drivers,” he groans.  For as much as he didn’t trust his SASPER car, he was glad to have it in this place.  He fumbles for the door release and clicks the slider back.  The door pushes itself outward with a whir, then slides forward.  Nate exits the car, casually muttering, “headlights on.”

He makes his way closer to the accident.  Other cars are whizzing by, seemingly unfazed by the wrinkled up transportation cans.  Nate wonders what he would’ve done had he been driving; if he would’ve stopped had his SASPER car not automatically done so to avoid being involved in this very wreck.  Probably not, he thinks.  He doesn’t particularly care for blood.  Or death.

His eyes are drawn to movement in one of the vehicles – an old car with sharp lines that belie subtle curves.  Nate studies it for a moment, decides it has – or had – a certain boring charm, but is now sporting thousands of dollars of front end damage.

The driver door swings open, and a pale man steps out, clutching onto the roof of the car for support.  He’s dizzy, maybe.  Or just too shaken to stand on his own.  His clothes are ill-fitting; the shoulders of his shirt much too big, his pants drowned his legs.

“Are you okay?” Nate calls out.  The man doesn’t respond.  Nate decides that if the man can stand, he’ll probably be alright sooner or later, so he diverts his attention to the other car.  This one has no lines, no flat surfaces, nothing sharp.  It is glossy, it has curves that beget curves, endlessly.  It is compact, a coupe, and makes no excuses for its lightweight design.  Despite the damage to the rear driver’s side panel, it is beautiful.  A throwback to yesteryear, reminiscent – however ironically so – to sports cars that were meant to be driven.

“A SASPER 7?  No way…” Nate says.  He rushes over to it, ignoring the man from the other car.  He forces his sight through the darkly tinted windows for signs of life inside, but the body he makes out is still.  Nate backs up, reaches under the door to the rocker panel, and finds one of the emergency door release buttons that’s recessed into the underside.  If the SASPER 7’s computer was still working properly, it should’ve registered a collision and unlocked the doors automatically.  That doesn’t mean the door will still work, though.

The door reluctantly releases and begins sliding forward, but the damage is apparently more serious than just the outer panel, and the door sticks halfway open.  Nate briefly considers how much force it must’ve taken to bend the frame of a SASPER car, but it’s a fleeting thought.

He reaches into the car’s luxurious interior, noting the smell of clean leather and the spicy base note of a cologne he almost recognizes.  The man inside looks to be unconscious, but Nate isn’t qualified to make any judgements of human health.

“Hey, wake up,” Nate says.  He reaches a hand out to shake the man, but realizes that he may serve to agitate a sustained injury by doing so.  Frustrated, Nate mutters, “Crap,” and looks up at the SASPER’s console display.  Across a shadowed gray background in clean, blue typeface were the words “EMERGENCY SERVICES CALLED” and directly below that, “EMERGENCY SERVICES DISPATCHED.”

There’s nothing more Nate can do about this man’s well-being, but…

He circles the car, slides the passenger door open, and enters.  “SASPER emergency mode,” Nate commands.  “Accident replay.”  The display in the center console cleanly transitions to a video, with a wireframe overview being rendered on-the-fly in the top right corner.  He watches as the old car puts on a turn signal and legally changes lanes in front of the SASPER 7.  The SASPER speeds up, swerves in front of the other car, and hard brakes.  The wireframe shows a side impact to the SASPER 7 and a front impact to the other car, noting that autocruise was on the entire time, without any human intervention.

“What the hell?”  Nate says, replaying the last few seconds of the video.  “It was the SASPER’s fault?”  It’s a statistical outlier within a statistical outlier, for more than one reason.

“SASPER emergency override,” Nate commands.  “Operator code 744809.  Show event logs.”  The screen transitions from video to text display.  It is crude; a terminal not meant for consumer eyes.  Nate filters the logs, collapsing everything that wasn’t in the 60 seconds prior to the accident.

The event codes don’t make any sense.  Nate furrows his brow, flicks his finger across the screen, pinches and zooms to examine what he’s seeing.

His eyes hadn’t deceived him.

Of the 600 recorded traffic accidents last year with a SASPER car at fault, and of all recorded traffic accidents in history involving an at-fault SASPER car, there has never been a case where a SASPER hit another car.  That is to say, every at-fault SASPER accident was a single-car accident.  Last year, 600 SASPER cars in autocruise mode had detected an impending accident, and had flung itself off of the road in the safest way possible – as it was programmed to do – to minimize possible causalities.  All 600 accident cases involved the SASPER car, and the SASPER car alone.

This was the first time in their 9-year history outside of factory testing that a SASPER car has hit another car.  The SASPER clearly made a decision based on its very complicated accident-avoidance algorithms to involve another car.  As much as Nate couldn’t believe it, the event logs show it as plain as a cloudless, sunny spring afternoon.

Nate didn’t trust SASPER cars, but he knew the accident-avoidance algorithm’s logic was sound.  He’d sat through so many conferences, board meetings, compliance hearings…God, too many to think about.  Every engineer in the company had pored through the code with a fine-toothed comb, analyzed every bit that had a potential to cause an issue.  The head engineers wrote line-by-line documentation of the code.  Change control was strict; those meetings were a nightmare.

But just as Nate’s paranoia defies his own logic, here it has seemingly been justified.  Did the SASPER purposely cause a wreck?  There are no alerts in the logs, nothing to indicate that this wreck had been caused due to avoidance of some other possible collision event.

Nate steps out of the car and cranes his neck in search of the driver of the other car.  He’s still standing there, pale as paper is white, just staring into space.

“Hey!  This car hit you, right?” Nate voice is more commanding than he intends.

The pale man pivots his head like an oscillating fan.

“Wha…what?”

“This car caused the accident?”

“Y…yeah.  It swerved…in front of me.”

“Any idea why?”

“No.  It…it was really random.  Like, for no reason.”

Nate knows computers don’t do anything without a reason.

“Thanks.”

He pulls out his PerCom, surveys the SASPER with suspicious eyes as he speaks.  “Iris, is Kat busy?”

“Kat is available,” the PerCom says.  “Should I contact her?”

“Yes, by phone please.”

“Calling Kat now.”

Nate anxiously waits for Kat’s voice.

“Hello?”

“Kat, I need a favor.”

“Jesus, Nate, can’t you say hi first?”

“Sorry, I uh…it’s important.”

“What’s up?”

“I’m standing five feet away from a SASPER 7.  I need you to pull its SASPERnet logs as soon as you possibly can.”

“You know I can’t do that without an authorization from the owner.”

“I have access to the computer.  I’ll override the authorization request.”

“You know I’m not a fan of ethically murky requests.”  Kat pauses.  “How do you have access to a SASPER 7 anyway?  There are only 49 of those in the country.”

Nate bites his lip.  “You won’t believe me until you see the logs.”  The PerCom vibrates lightly in his hand as a notification for a location request pops up.  He approves the request, allowing Iris to send Nate’s GPS coordinates to Kat.

“You’re freaking me out a little.”

“It’s warranted.  Trust me.”

Silence creeps into the conversation for several seconds.

“You’re in Metairie, Louisiana?”

“Yep.”

“Well, there are no other SASPER 7’s in the state, so this ought to be easy to pinpoint.”

Nate hears a siren in the distance.  He glances over at the pale guy that’s drowning in his own clothes, then slides back into the passenger seat of the SASPER.  The man in the driver’s seat – if you can even call it a “driver’s” seat anymore – is still out cold.  “Ready when you are.”

“It’s pinging SASPERnet.  The authorization request has been sent.”

Nate sees the notification pop up onto the screen.  It pulses blue and white, trying to get the driver’s attention.  For whatever reason, this guy had turned off the SASPER’s voice assistant.

“SASPER emergency override.  Operator code 744809.”  The screen flashes to a console, then back to the authorization notification.  Nate does not hesitate.  “Authorization approved, send logs now.  Grant root access, wipe 10 minutes’ previous access records on completion.  Confirm operator code 744809.”  The display transitions to a progress bar, completes transmitting the logs, flashes once to indicate root access, and then goes back to emergency notification mode:  “EMERGENCY SERVICES CALLED, EMERGENCY SERVICES DISPATCHED.”

“Got the logs,” Kat says.

“Thanks, I owe you one.”

“Now, are you going to tell me what this is all about?”

Nate exits the wrecked SASPER and begins walking to his own.  “This SASPER 7 caused a wreck involving another car.”

Kat is silent for a moment.  “How is that possible?”

“You tell me.  You’ve got the full autocruise logs.”

“Holy shit Nate, this is bad.”

“No Kat, this isn’t bad,” Nate says, looking back at the victim of the wreck, who has slightly regained some color.  “This is way fucking worse than that.”

July 26

Intertwined

In some cultures, it’s common to refer to the paths ours lives take as “threads.”  It’s such an interesting comparison to make, because threads have so many different qualities that make them unique.  Threads can be many different colors and sizes, and combine fabrics to make something that’s so much larger the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately though, like threads, lives can be cut short, and sometimes, threads can be stretched taut until they snap.

I met Carrie in my third year of college.  She was in one of my general education classes.  Despite our majors being substantively different, our threads still intermingled.  It’s weird how that works, and kind of beautiful in the grand scheme of things.

We didn’t sit next to each other, nor would we probably have ever talked, but we got paired up for a group project by our teacher and ended up hitting it off remarkably fast.  The reason our teacher paired us?  Both our last names started with “L.”

Carrie’s family owned a small textile company somewhere in the eastern U.S. that produced some kind of old-fashioned, high quality fabrics.  She was expected to go into the family business, but was majoring in a STEM field because, as she said, she simply lacked the interest.  I found it fascinating that she wanted to turn down the inheritance of a successful company business to go off and do her own thing, but that quality was what initially drew me to her.  Carrie knew what she wanted and was willing to work through every obstacle in her way to achieve it.  Simply calling her “driven” almost didn’t seem like enough.

Me?  I was going for a career in journalism.  The art of writing, I guess.  Quite different from Carrie’s biology major, and yet, we found so many similarities between ourselves.  The way she could describe cellular functions was poetic, which was remarkable in that she understood her passion well enough to explain it beautifully in layman’s terms to someone like me, a person whose scientific knowledge started in my 7th grade life science class and ended in my 8th grade earth science class.  It’s funny, really, remembering her expression when I stared stupidly back at her during bar trivia the first time she realized how truly lacking my knowledge of science was.  She guessed – correctly, I might add – the answer to a question, “mitochondria,” and spent the next ten minutes explaining to me things I probably should’ve remembered from 10th grade, but totally either forgot or blocked out.

The weird thing though, was the joy that radiated from her eyes, her tone, the way she sparkled when she spoke about what she loved.  I couldn’t care too much less about eukaryotic cells, but I could’ve listened to her speak vividly about them all night.  She lit up so brightly when she got to talk about that stuff.

Carrie and I were friends for only a few weeks before we started dating.  I say “only” a few weeks because I never moved quickly into relationships.  The beginning of my first year in college, I spent so much time writing and submitting articles and columns to various sites, magazines, and papers that I literally ruined a budding relationship that I’d put a couple of months of work into by that point.  The same thing happened again at the end of my first year, so I just sort of swore it off unless it seemed like it could be a casual thing.  I was really focused on breaking into the career I’d always dreamed about, and for some reason, finally seeing that focus in someone else made me appreciate Carrie all that much more.

We both knew immediately that our time together would be limited as we approached mid-terms that semester, but that was fine.  I really didn’t consider anything about our relationship “casual,” and yet, I was supposed to have sworn that off.  I guess I found it really hard to have found something so special in someone, and yet have to not let fate take its course.  Our threads had met and intertwined, and I didn’t want them to drift apart.  That I was sure of.

Mid-terms came and went, and our time together was stretched thin, but even just meeting for lunch or walking her across campus to her dorm in the evening was enough.  I was in it for the long-haul, and if seeing Carrie infrequently now was what it took to see her more frequently at some undisclosed point in the future, then I was up for it.  Seeing her smiling face, hearing her laugh and gentle whispers of “I love you” when we parted for the day, I knew the feeling was mutual.  There was no need to confirm, no need to bring up pointless things.  Carrie’s thread and mine might as well have been one.

Every once in a while, Carrie visited her parents and fell off the face of the earth for a day or two.  She always told me ahead of time and blamed her lack of communication on spotty cell coverage in her home town, compounded upon her parents’ requests of family time.  I didn’t mind, of course, it was just another thing that kept us apart.

My senior year was spent searching for an internship, and subsequently pouring my time into the one I found.  It was exhaustively time-consuming.  Every time I opened up my word processing software, I thought about how much more I wished I could be texting Carrie.  It was a daily struggle to be responsible, and every once in a while, I could tell it was for her too.  I think we both did pretty well in hiding just how much we wanted to spend more time together, but there were times I really got depressed about it.  I don’t think Carrie ever noticed, because as soon as I saw her, those negative feelings evaporated.

I don’t think it ever affected my studies.  In fact, it might’ve even helped.  I knew that failure in my classes meant repeating them, which meant more time spent with books and Microsoft Word instead of Carrie.  That was something that really kept me going sometimes.

A month before we were set to graduate, Carrie started acting weird.  Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that I started noticing that Carrie was acting weird.  Not in a suspicious way, but it was still very concerning.  I must’ve asked her twenty times what was bothering her, but over and over, she assured me that nothing was wrong.  I couldn’t figure out why she was lying to me, and I knew that’s exactly what her assurances were.  Carrie had never lied to me in such an obvious way, and I wasn’t sure how to confront her about it.  It was such a blatant shift in her character, yet I didn’t for a second suspect her of any wrongdoing.  I figured maybe the exhaustion from finishing up finals and college coming to a close had finally begun to take its toll, as she certainly had begun looking a little more fatigued than usual.

The day before graduation, Carrie stopped responding to my texts and calls.  The next day, her name was called and she wasn’t there to walk across the stage.  I was there, and I heard my name being called, but I distinctly remember feeling like I was somewhere else.  I shook the dean’s hand and accepted my diploma, but my mind was with Carrie.  I’d asked her friends, I’d left messages on her Facebook and Twitter; I literally didn’t know where else to turn.  She’d just up and disappeared.

Two days later, Carrie finally responded to my texts.  By then, I was a wreck.  I’d called the police, but they apparently don’t take 21-year olds looking for their missing girlfriends very seriously.  The night before she finally responded, I’d cried myself to sleep and ended up waking up with a fever.  I had literally worried myself sick.

Carrie’s reply was simple in its devastation.  “We need to talk.”  I expected what I thought was the worst, which in retrospect, didn’t make much sense.  In fact, looking back, the conclusion that I jumped to almost seems narcissistic.  I thought she wanted to break up with me.  I thought it was so awkward and embarrassing for her that she’d skipped her own college graduation.

In actuality, when I showed up to Carrie’s apartment that day, her family was there.  I didn’t understand why she’d ask to meet me with them present.  After all, it was the first time I’d met her parents and her younger sister.

And it’s when I learned Carrie was dying.

Carrie smiled at me when she broke the news.  She’d known for a long time, and she’d kept it from me, and from all of her friends.  I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to react, so I just blankly stared at her as she explained.  Carrie had been sick for a long time, but she was fine most of the time up until now.  Those times she’d disappeared on “visits to her parents’ house,” she was actually in doctors’ offices and hospitals getting various tests and studies done.  But nothing had ever helped, and her diagnosis was a fatal one.

She didn’t want me to worry, so she’d never told me.  I didn’t – and to this day still don’t – fully understand why she would’ve thought keeping that from me was a good idea.  It was maybe even a little cruel, despite her circumstances, but as the pieces began to fall into place, I finally understood why she was so driven.  She knew that she didn’t have a future, so the family business was out of the question.  Instead, she hoped to be able to find answers to her own body’s malfunction by majoring in something entirely different.

As I broke down, Carrie smiled sweetly and apologized for keeping her condition from me, but my head was too far into a down-spiral of melancholy thoughts.  What was wrong with her was very unpredictable, and though she’d originally been given another couple of years, the diagnosis had recently changed when the condition became more aggressive, and she took a turn for the worse.  Doctors were only giving her a few months at that point, maybe half a year if she was lucky.

It wasn’t fair that Carrie’s thread was so short.  We’d formed such an amazing bond, I just couldn’t imagine life without her.  Yet, four months later, I didn’t have a choice.  I watched her silently slip away, and personally bore witness to her thread coming to an end; to the parting of hers from mine.  To say that I was broken up about it would be an understatement, but I suppose you could expect as much.  The girl I thought I’d spend my life with was taken from me, after all.  I couldn’t write for a long time, but when I finally picked it back up many months later, stories started coming to me more easily than worldly observations.

I carry her memory with me even now, 6 years later.  The beginning of my first novel, just before the first chapter, contains a very simple memorial to her, and I couldn’t have been prouder that so many thousands of people had read those words: “For Carrie, whose thread was cut so short, despite all of the promise she brought to the world and to me.”

December 26

The World as it Was – Part 1

Back in college, I held down two jobs.  One was as a computer help desk guy for the university, and the other was as a freelance writer for a local weekly newspaper.  Well, okay, the latter wasn’t really that big of a deal.  I just wrote a 500 word article every week and pretended that I could never make the weekly meetings.  My jobs, starting with both of those, molded who I was and what I’d become.  When I graduated, I switched departments, but stayed working in IT for the university.  And it was no longer for pay, but I kept writing.  It was sporadic, but it was a part of me that I didn’t want to let go, so I posted it freely online and was okay that it had no following whatsoever.  I wrote it for me, and I enjoyed it, so that’s all that mattered.

I published a novel a couple years later, but an ill-timed server reboot at my day job brought about more fanfare than my grand début into the eBook world.  But again, that wasn’t really important to me.  I wrote for me, I wrote because I enjoyed it.  Slapping computers around used to provide that fulfillment for me, but it ended up just being a way to pay the bills.

When the war started, I was safe from being drafted because I held a professional-level job.  No one wanted to fight, it seemed, but the unskilled workforce seemed to be slowly getting snapped up into the armed forces.  My feelings were conflicted on the draft, because as happy as I was to have little chance at being drafted, I could only wonder how those draftees felt.  Did they think it was fair?  Did they wonder if their lives were worth less than mine?

A year after the war started, a private company contracted by the military completed and built a design for a combat enhancement exoskeleton for soldiers to wear.  It wasn’t armor; it just made humans faster, stronger, and more precise.  The media nicknamed them “battle suits,” which I didn’t find very fitting, but I didn’t have a say in the matter.

I wrote up my thoughts on the battle suits online, and in doing so, ended up with some fortunate side effects, the first of which was that my website traffic spiked and analytics showed that post was clearly the reason.  The other side effect was that in researching data for my post, I learned a bit about the battle suits.  They had originally begun development years before the war as a medical device – an aid to the disabled.  Slap one of those exoskeletons on a person that was paralyzed from the waist down and they could walk again.  The project in its medical form had taken years to get off of the ground and find funding, but once a use that involved slaughtering other humans became viable for the technology, funding become abundant.

Ugh, humanity.  I swear.

My day job didn’t slow down, as I supported the university’s systems that allowed students to register for classes, check their grades, and a slew of other boring things I won’t go into detail about for now.  The point here is that when the war took off, the draft was reinstated for the first time since 1973, which meant that some kids that didn’t plan on going to college suddenly changed their minds and quickly began applying for student loans in hopes they could avoid being shipped off to war.  Our university had seen its highest enrollment rates in all of its history in the past year.  So yeah, my day job was busy.

After my post on battle suits took off, I decided to use the momentum and the traffic to turn my website into a media hub about technology related to the war.  I was conflicted on doing it at first, but even if I was against the war, there was no denying its existence or the existence of this amazing new technology that would hopefully help bring it to a close as quickly as possible.

I kept writing articles on the battle suits and kept gaining readership until I was seeing a steady 1,000 unique hits a day.  Even if you’re not into website analytics, you can probably tell that’s an exciting number to hit.  One thousand different IP addresses around the globe (and one IP from the International Space Station!) had found my content interesting enough to click on, and advertising analytics showed that most of them stayed on the site for at least 10 minutes.  Holding attention like that wasn’t an easy task, and I was ecstatic at having managed to do so.

I didn’t actually know too much about the political motivations for the war, but neither did anyone else.  One of our allies had some misguided attempt at policing a country in southeast Asia and ended up dragging us into their fight.  Kind of ironic, actually, considering our own messy history with that kind of thing.  But it was like a chain reaction at that point, involving more and more allies joining in on both sides, until we ended up where we were, no longer able to rely on an all-volunteer military.  At the end of the day, I was sure that most people involved in the war were only fighting because they were being told to.  They just wanted to go home.  People were probably out there killing other people without even knowing why.

Like most, I wanted to believe that the government was keeping tight-lipped about the war for a good reason, but I was never much for believing in government, so I had my suspicions that this war was more than just an unfortunate mess that we begrudgingly got involved in.  Something about the whole thing bothered me, and I sometimes hinted at that on my website, but I never directly came out and said it.

It’s weird to think of how a chain of events happening exactly as they happen can completely change your life.  If one thing in that chain had been changed, I never would’ve been contacted that day.  If I hadn’t gotten into writing, if I didn’t understand the technology enough to write about it, if my site hadn’t gotten that traffic spike, if I hadn’t taken it in the direction I did, if I hadn’t hinted at my distrust in the government’s motivations, I never would’ve gotten the email that changed everything.

If you want to understand this war for what it really is, you need only let me know.  I can tear down the wall that’s been erected to prevent you from seeing the truth. ~VC

Imagine getting an email like that, being in the mindset that I was already in.  Thanks to ROPA – the Restoration of Privacy Act – I was fairly certain that the government was no longer snooping on us, but even that I wasn’t 100% sure of.  I guessed if they were still doing domestic spying, I’d find out soon enough.  If some men in dark suits showed up with “questions” to ask me and directed me to their black, limo-tinted SUV, I’d kindly decline and run in the other direction.  Until they tased me, or whatever it was they did to nonviolent people that posted unflattering things about them on the Internet.

I had very little idea what I was getting into, but I was compelled at that point to respond to the email.  It was almost beyond my control.  The curiosity would kill me if those men in black suits didn’t.

Almost as quickly as I could hit “send” to let them know I wanted in on their knowledge, whoever was on the other side of that email responded.

Your IP is authorized for one download of this file.  It will be deleted afterward.  Take care. ~VC

I clicked the link to download the file, which appeared to be a video of some kind.  Probably harmless to download and watch.  Well, harmless to my computer, at least.  I watched the video in total silence, and then I watched it again.

Do you remember your first crush?  Of course you do.  Who could forget the first person they ever had feelings for?  You might not remember why you liked them, you might not remember any conversations you had with them, but you remember their name.

Amanda, 5th grade.  That’s all I remember.

But I will never forget a single second of the video I watched that night.  Humans in battle suits, humans not in battle suits, weapons raised, weapons blasting, not at each other, but at something else.  Monsters, creatures I’d never seen.  Big hulking things that stood on legs that terminated at clawed toes, heads that resembled a mish-mash of dinosaur-like things from Earth’s history, skin that looked slimy but apparently tough enough to feel bullets as nothing but pinpricks.

I knew immediately that the video was real.  If the poor quality and shakiness of a carefully hidden camera didn’t give it away, the screams of agony and anger certainly did – both the human ones, and the inhuman ones.

There was no war between countries in southeast Asia; it was a war between species.  It was humanity versus…whatever those things were.  Aliens?  Some mutated life forms from Earth?  Somehow, the world had been kept in the dark for over a year, and suddenly, my suspicions made sense.  The government was keeping us in the dark so as to not cause widespread panic.  And somehow, it had worked for this long.  If the war was only raging in that one area of Asia, none of the troops were coming home, and no footage was allowed out, how would anyone know what was actually going on out there?

I didn’t sleep much that night thinking about it.  It was the biggest coverup in the history of humanity, and it had worked except for seemingly this one video.  Somehow, this video had escaped the war zone, and even more unbelievable, it had found its way to me, thanks to whoever “VC” was.

Why had they shared this with me?  Were they expecting me to use my website to spread the truth?  It didn’t seem like it would’ve been hard to publicize something like this without my still relatively small website.  So what was VC’s angle, then?  Were they just sharing information?

I had to take off of work the next day.  It was too much to ask of me to try to process what I’d seen in the video and fix whatever systems broke on what amounted to forty minutes total of sleep.  I kept watching the video, examining the creatures, trying to figure out what they were.  I emailed VC multiple times asking for more information, but my inbox remained empty until that night.

I’ve shown you the truth.  What you do with it is your own choice.  You are one of less than 10 civilians that can claim this knowledge.  Use it wisely.  Do not expect further contact. ~VC

Not the answers I’d been looking for, but I had a strange feeling that VC was telling me all they knew, just in this very roundabout way.  I wanted to know so much more, but it appeared as though I’d reached the end of that thread.

But the problem remained of what to do with the information I’d been given.  Not wanting to make a rash decision, I kept it to myself for a while and weighed my options.  The biggest problem I had with sharing this revelation with the world was that I had no way to prove it was true.  I could share the video, but VC had made sure to share it with me and only me by giving access to my IP address just once.  I had to theorize since VC had barely told me anything, but it felt as though he or she was scared of being tracked down.

And even if I shared the video, it wasn’t really undeniable proof of anything.  My belief was that it was real, but my judgment wasn’t fact.  I had to find out for sure, I had to gather 100% undeniable evidence.  It was too important to ignore.  I didn’t know how I’d do it, or how long it would take, but I’d find proof, and I’d share it with the world.

November 10

Intrusion

I was writing a scary story to post for Halloween, and I completely dropped the ball on finishing it up in time.  I’m still working on it, but in the meantime, here’s another of my very rare poems.

It’s quiet in this room

As the world lies asleep

And I sit here awake

But suddenly, a creak.

I wander from the sofa,

Pass into the kitchen

Stop at the hallway

Dare to take a listen.

“Certainly,” I think

“It’s just the house settling”

But then I realize

Someone must be meddling.

“Impossible,” I mumble

“I know I closed the door”

But the evidence is clear

As it swings ajar.

I push the slab closed

Quickly twist the lock

Turn around to walk back in

And encounter quite a shock.

Frightful, you may call it

You’d suspect that was the case

As I certainly did not expect

To be staring a man in the face.

July 5

Original: Prologue – Narrator: ????? – Add ‘Em Up and Knock ‘Em Down

This is the original version of the prologue to my first novel, “We Put the ‘Dual’ in ‘Individual.'”  I am posting this to showcase how bad my writing was, as compared to how it had progressed as of  April 2012, when I rewrote this prologue.


 

“Hey!  Be quiet back there!”

I was scared to make the man mad, but at the same time, I knew that there really wasn’t much he could do to shut me up from the front seat of his crappy old van.  Though I was bound and gagged, I was still doing my best to try to get it through the guy’s head that he was kidnapping the wrong person.

I tried many times to communicate with the man, but in the end, all that got me was a gag in my mouth and revoked my shotgun privileges.  I probably should have accepted just being bound and sitting quietly in the front, but I wasn’t exactly known for keeping my mouth shut.

Don’t get me wrong, though – I was terrified, even as I tried my best to talk through the gag.

“Don’t worry, girl.  You’ll be fine as long as your parents pay the ransom,” he said.  My abductor didn’t even sound like a stereotypical criminal.  He didn’t have a deep voice, and he wasn’t big, burly, or unkempt.  He just looked and sounded like a normal guy.

“Mmhfmm afama raaah pahpu!”  Try as I might, the gag made my words completely incoherent.  My frustration was off the chart, but that was nothing compared to my fear.

He’d demanded two million dollars in exchange for my life, but if I had to guess, my parents had maybe forty thousand dollars of savings in their bank account.  We were just a normal, middle-class family.  If this guy was really planning to kill me if he didn’t get two million dollars, then I was going to die.

I rolled across the floor of the van every time my captor took a turn.  I didn’t think I was bleeding, but I was definitely bruised from smashing into the crap that lined the walls.  It hurt so much that I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.  Every time I felt the tears coming, they immediately froze in place because I had much, much worse things to worry about, and that somehow dampened the pain.

“Well, here we are.  Home sweet home!” the man said.  He climbed out of the van and slammed the driver’s side door closed.  A few second later, he opened the back doors and climbed inside, hovering over me and grinning like an animal that was about to feast on its prey.

He grabbed my arm and lifted me up on his right side.  I couldn’t walk because my feet were bound, so he just dragged me like that out of the back of the van.  When we were out, he closed the van doors, and, much to my surprise, picked me up, and tossed me over his shoulder.  It was so quick and so casual that I didn’t even get a chance to protest it.

I realized that I should probably get a good look around so that if I escaped, I would be able to give the police a good description of my captor’s house.  However, there wasn’t much to see.  We were inside of a garage.  It was dark and hot and it smelled like paint.

“When we get inside, if you promise not to annoy the shit out of me, I’ll take your gag off,” he said.  His shoulder was jabbing into the side of my stomach, and I wanted to yell at him about it, but having the gag off would be nice.

He carried me through the kitchen and down a flight of stairs into a basement room.  The bannister at the bottom of the staircase was broken and splintered, and though there was an old, red couch against the back wall, he dropped me in the middle of the room onto the nasty-looking shag carpet.

“Don’t bother screaming.  There’s no one around,” he said, removing the gag from my mouth in the least gentle way possible.  Much to my surprise, he also removed the ropes from around my arms and legs.  I didn’t say a word out of fear that he would bind and gag me again.

“You better hope your parents pay the ransom by tomorrow night,” he said as he reached the top of the staircase.  “You won’t see Saturday morning if they don’t.”  He turned and climbed the stairs out of the basement, closing and locking the door behind him.

I didn’t know the man’s name, and heck, he didn’t even know mine, though he probably thought he did.  He’d just been calling me ‘girl’ the whole time.  I wondered for a second who he thought I was, but it didn’t matter.  He wouldn’t believe me, and I didn’t have my purse, so I didn’t have my driver’s license to prove my identity.

I walked in circles around the room, tried to think up ways to escape, and sat in a corner and cried for a while just to pass the time.  I couldn’t see outside and there were no clocks in the room, so I didn’t even know what time it was.  It could’ve been 6 PM or 10 PM, and neither would’ve surprised me.

Suddenly, I heard the door at the top of the stairs close, though I hadn’t heard it open.  I waited for my captor to appear, but he didn’t.  I cautiously walked over and looked up the stairs, and rather than a person, I saw a plate.

Food?  I hadn’t even thought about food.

I climbed up and stared at the plate.  In it, there was half of a ham sandwich and a few potato chips.  It looked like it might have been the man’s leftovers, but no matter what it was, I had absolutely no appetite despite having not eaten almost all day, so I didn’t care.  I left the plate there and went back downstairs to sit in the corner and cry.

At some point, I ended up crying myself to sleep.  Had I tried to fall asleep, it would’ve been impossible, but somehow, I just dozed right off without even wanting to.  Maybe I was exhausted from sobbing and pacing around the room, but I think there was another reason that I fell asleep so suddenly.  It may sound strange, but I think it was because there was a dream that I needed to see.

I met a boy in the dream.  I was aware that it was a dream, and though I was lucid, I couldn’t control anything about the boy.  I could fly, I could change the color of the sky, and I could shoot rainbows out of the tips of my fingers, but the boy was completely out of my control.

He seemed to already know me and about the situation I was in, but I didn’t know him.  He spent a while talking to me about my life before finally asking me if I had any questions for him.  I started off with the most obvious one that I could think of.

“Why is this happening to me?” I asked.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.

“But what’s the reason?”

“It’s unfortunate that fate has chosen you, but it is fate that has brought you here,” he said.

“What do you mean?  I was destined to be kidnapped?”

“You should already know that your situation is much worse than that,” he said.

“So, what, I’m going to die in some lunatic’s basement because he thinks I’m someone else?”

“It’s not that simple.  The girl that you are being mistaken for is very important.  Without her, I wouldn’t exist, and neither would my sisters.”

“And what makes you so important?” I asked.

“Don’t misunderstand,” he said.  “My life is no more valuable than yours.  However, as you can see, I am standing here before you.  That means that I exist, and because I exist, my mother must not die before she conceives me.  Therefore, she’s important to the future.”

“It sounds like you’re saying that I have to die so that you can be born,” I said.

“I am only saying that it is fate that my mother is going to live, and the proof of that is that I exist.”

“This is really confusing and pretty unfair, if you ask me.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “Truly, I am sorry.  However, there is something that I’d like you to do for me that I think you will enjoy, and I hope that it will make up for this at least a little.”

“A dream favor?” I asked.

“No, this is a real favor,” he said.  “I’ll tell you about it when we next meet.”

“But when will I see you again if I’m about to die?”  I asked.  The boy looked at me with a wide smirk on his face, then turned and started walking away.

“Soon.”

“Wake up!”

I awoke lying on the floor with my captor’s boot in my face.  I immediately sat up straight, as if he were a drill sergeant or something.

“Guess what?” he said.

“W-What?” I asked, immediately longing to be back in the dream world.

“Your parents didn’t meet the deadline,” he said.

“It’s already that time?” I asked.  It seemed impossible.  How had the hours passed by so quickly?  Was it much later than I thought it was when I fell asleep, or had I just slept for an absurd amount of time?

“Unfortunately for you.”

“Look, my parents aren’t wealthy.  You have the wrong girl. My name is-“

“Shut up!” he yelled.  “That’s not going to work.  I know who you are, and you’re not getting out of this.”  I didn’t think it would work, but what else could I do?  I had to try one last time, right?

Though I was 18, I’d never had a boyfriend.  My dad got a job when I was 14 that forced us to move around a lot.  We’d only been in our current city for 4 months.  As a result, I never really had a whole lot of time to meet people.

That was what was running through my mind as I watched my captor pull out a small handgun.  I’d never found love in my short life, and I suddenly understood what people meant when they said that they didn’t want to regret anything when they were staring death in the face.

“This ought to teach your parents not to ignore me,” he said, pointing his gun right at my forehead.  “Goodbye, Debbie Kirkman.”

The man pulled the trigger of the gun he was holding, and I fell lifelessly to the floor.

Whoever Debbie Kirkman was, she’d live to see another day.

But I wouldn’t.