May 16

Statistics

One of the reasons I chose a business major in college was because I hated math, so I wasn’t particularly excited to take Business Statistics 101. It was, however, required for my major, and I suppose you can say I found solace in the fact that it was at least better than calculus.

It was, by far, the most boring one-hour period of every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, only made worse by the fact the subject matter was difficult for me and that I didn’t know anyone else in the class. A study group or someone to at least mull over homework with would’ve made my life so much better, but most of my friends were art majors or science majors that either had fewer or much more difficult math requirements.

The lecture hall for Business Stats was on the smaller side – especially compared to some of the gynasium-sized halls on campus – but there were still 150 seats. Not around, not about – exactly 150. I know because I counted.

At first, I sat in the front because I was hoping that would encourage me to focus on the lesson, but after a couple weeks of that and still getting a C on my first exam, I felt fairly discouraged and ended up sitting wherever I was drawn to for that particular class. I was never a “back of the class” type of person, but since this class took attendance and I was basically having to teach myself the material as best I could every time we were given homework, I stopped caring where I sat. I just needed the attendance mark next to my name and be a warm body in a seat until it was time to go to my much more interesting marketing class.

It was on a Wednesday that I first sat next to Kelly, or I guess, more accurately, I should say that she sat next to me. I had started habitually taking the end seat on the back row closest to the door so I could get out of the horrid class as soon as possible. Kelly happened to show up late one day and took the closest seat she could to the door to avoid be disruptive to the rest of the class, and that’s how we met.

“Sorry,” she said as she shuffled by and sat down next to me.

“No worries,” I said. It wasn’t like I was paying super close attention anyway. I had actually taken to using my time in Business Stats to do homework for other classes, that way I could use that time later to learn Business Stats. I know it sounds stupid, but the traditional approach had earned me a low C, and this approach had earned me a C that was one point away from a B on the subsequent exam.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kelly take her laptop out and start googling something that looked related to the class material. I don’t know why I found it so intriguing, but every once in a while I would sneak a peek of her screen, and it was always a some sort of resource that related to whatever the professor was currently discussing. She wasn’t taking notes, she wasn’t following along with his slideshow, she was just independently reading on the subject of the day.

I couldn’t make fun of the method though, could I? If that’s what worked for her, then more power to her. It was hard to blame anyone in that awful class for learning the material their own way.

Maybe I could try that method, but today wasn’t the day for that. I forced myself to look back at my own screen, which displayed an online assignment for my economics class that still somehow managed to be more interesting and easy to understand than statistics.

“Hey, is that the Econ 102 homework for Matheson’s class?”

“Yeah,” I nodded, unsure why she was talking to me.

“Are you in the 9:30 class?” she whispered.

“No, 10:30,” I said. I purposely didn’t schedule classes before 10 AM because I had trouble staying awake, which was a solution that I implemented in my second semester of college after I realized I was dealing with a problem that I had largely created for myself.

“Ugh, I wish I could switch to that one,” she said. “I practically have to prop my eyelids open to stay awake.”

I arched an eyebrow, because for a moment, it was like she’d read my mind.

“Yeah, that’s why I took the 10:30 class,” I said.

“Good foresight,” she said.

After that exchange, class proceeded as normal. When it finally ended, I left with a slight wave at her, and rushed off to Marketing 102.

My interaction with Kelly in that class is burned into my mind because I never talked to people I didn’t know in class except when we had to group up for one reason or another. Of course, at that time, I still didn’t know her name, but I did find myself wondering if she was in the same situation that I was in, and if she wanted a study buddy too.

Friday’s Business Stats class came, and Kelly showed up on time, but rather than picking one of the many other open seats, she once again sat down next to me.

“Hey,” she said. “I didn’t catch your name on Wednesday.”

“Eric,” I said.

“Well howdy Eric, I’m Kelly.”

“Howdy?” I flashed a smirk. “Are you from Texas?”

She laughed. “No, it’s just an affectation I picked up from an old friend. I’m actually from Virginia.”

“Oh, hey, I’m from Richmond!”

Her eyes lit up like mine must’ve just then. We were only a few states away, and like most universities, ours attracted plenty of students from out of state, but it still felt special to meet someone from the exact city you grew up in completely by chance.

We chatted for the seven remaining minutes before class started like we were old friends. It was strange how easy it was to talk to her, but when the professor stood in front of the class and started going through the motions that meant class was about to begin, I felt disappointed that we had to cut our conversation short.

Three more class periods went by that were bookended by conversation with Kelly. Over the period of just a week, I found myself looking forward to my least favorite class just because I wanted to talk to her more.

The entire weekend, I kept thinking about her, to the point where I began questioning if I was excited about her friendship, or if I was excited about the possibility of something beyond that. I didn’t know her super well yet even though our conversations proved that we had some sort of deeper-than-normal connection. And while I was single, I wasn’t sure if she was.

When I was in high school, I dated my best friend Kris for about two weeks before we shared a come-to-Jesus moment about dating having been a mistake. We just couldn’t understand why there were no sparks when we kissed, yet felt like we really liked each other. Turns out that 15 year old me and 15 year old Kris just didn’t understand that guys and girls can be friends.

That flash-in-the-pan of a relationship had laid the foundation for me that I still followed four years later in recognizing my own feelings. Sure, things hadn’t worked out in the two relationships I’d had since then, but for much different reasons. I’d dated four different people in my life, and the only time I never took a valuable lesson from a relationship was the very first one, which I probably shouldn’t even count, because we were in 6th grade. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to explain why I didn’t glean anything useful from a relationship that consisted of going to school dances and sitting next to each other at lunch, even if we called each other girlfriend and boyfriend.

I sensed that I was falling for Kelly, but to admit that felt like I was skipping all of the important steps that I always took to make sure I actually liked someone. The truth was that we’d had interacted for about an hour total, and to pretend that I knew her or think I could have feelings for her seemed silly. We clicked, and she was totally my type when it came to looks, but that didn’t feel substantive.

The Monday after that weekend, I woke up and told myself to stop being delusional about Kelly. She was just a classmate and nothing more. I drilled it into my own head over and over until I started to believe it.

Then Business Stats came, Kelly sat beside me, and my heart began to race.

Why? Why was this happening? I knew better in every sense of awareness to act on these strange feelings, but it was like the universe was out to tell me that I was wrong.

“Hey Eric, do you mind if we exchange numbers?” she said, not more than a minute after sitting down and getting situated. “It might be useful to be able to text about homework or whatever.”

My already thumping heart began pounding out of my chest, but I still managed to respond in what felt like a normal way.

“Yeah, sure.”

And just like that, I got her number.

It felt strange to have it come so easily, like this was some sort of cosmic joke. But getting her number was a privilege not to be abused. She’d said it was texting about homework, and there was no way I was going to take advantage of that by bothering her with idle chit chat.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought, until she did exactly that during class. Her phone number was connected to iMessage on her laptop, and since I used an iPad with a keyboard to do homework for my other classes, I was getting the text popups on my screen just like she was.

hey, it’s me, the girl sitting next to you
thanks for giving me your number

I glanced over and saw her flash a grin in my direction.

yeah, no problem, though i might not be much help in the homework department. i usually have to teach myself this stuff every night after class.

maybe we should study together then?

My heart went back into overdrive. I had never met a girl this forward. Hanging out with a new female friend had always been about reading the situation, finding the right way to ask that wasn’t pushy, and then, if I was possibly interested in pursuing something more than friendship, asking in a way that didn’t put all of my cards on the table and that also didn’t make her feel uncomfortable.

Navigating the politics on a new friendship even with guys had always been difficult for me, but Kelly had completely taken the reins on this one. Of course I wanted to hang out with her, even if all we did was discuss graphing bell curves or whatever the hell the professor was going on about.

sure, that sounds like a great idea

Cool, my place then around 7?
i live right off campus

What in the world was going on? I was practically a stranger to her, right? How was she not uncomfortable with inviting some random guy from her class to the place where she lived? I liked to think of myself as a pretty decent person, but there’s no way that she could’ve known that, right? Hoping that I wouldn’t turn into some creepy stalker felt like a risky thing to bet on for an attractive girl. Heck, should I be worried about her being some kind of stalker?

yeah, just send me the address and i’ll be there

looking forward to it! can’t wait for you to meet my roommate, too
i think you’ll like her

Her roommate? This was getting more and more mysterious, but as much as the more paranoid side of me tried to raise flags, it just didn’t feel wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact.

When she sent the address over, I looked it up, and it turned out she lived in a popular apartment complex that a few of my friends also lived in. It was one of those places that wasn’t right off of campus, but rather, was just far enough away to need to either drive or take the bus. The closer complexes were almost all where the kids with rich parents lived.

My apartment was a couple blocks out from Kelly’s, so rather than drive, I decided to walk there. It gave me a little time to think about how to handle my interactions with her outside of the classroom, but I’d been adjusting to that all day since we hadn’t really stopped texting since we exchanged numbers. I wished I better understood this weird relationship we’d formed, but it felt weird to ask the questions I was thinking, so I kept my mouth shut.

My knuckles rapping on her door masked the sound of the thumping in my ears. I was early by five minutes, probably because I ended up walking faster than I’d meant to due to being incredibly anxious about this whole situation. I felt so dumb for feeling like this for a simple study session, but if I could help it, I certainly wouldn’t be standing outside Kelly’s door freaking out like this.

As the door opened, had a momentary crisis where I wasn’t sure how to greet her. Did I hug her? Shake her hand?

“Hey,” I said, arcing my hand in a slight wave. It was my first, stupid, awkward instinct, but there was no fallout.

“Hey!” she gestured toward herself. “Come on in.”

The living area that I walked into was tidy – much cleaner and more orderly than my own. More noticeably, there were decorations on the tables, shelves, and walls, which was something that my apartment was sorely lacking. I’d tried several times to care about buying some paintings or posters or something to add some personalization to my apartment, but I just didn’t have the eye for that kind of thing.

I did, however, immediately notice the painting behind the sofa in Kelly’s living room. It was a large, overly serious, stylistic oil on canvas of this cartoon character from an old show on Nickelodeon. It was unmistakeable what it was, because there was only one in existence, and Kris had painted it. I’d seen the thing hanging in her bedroom since 11th grade, which begged the question – why was it now hanging in Kelly’s apartment?

“Hey Eric, what’s shaking?”

I turned around to find Kris standing there, a huge grin on her face, and looking overall particularly proud of herself.

“Kris? What the heck is going on?”

Kelly laughed. “I told you that you’d like my roommate.”

“When did you move here?” I said, baffled by the idea of what was happening.

“At the beginning of the semester, dummy,” she said. “Remember, I asked you for help moving, but you were back in Virginia that weekend.”

“But I saw you a week and a half ago…”

Kris’ grin didn’t waver a bit. “You think I was going to tell you and ruin this surprise?”

“I’m still incredibly confused. How do you know Kelly? And how did Kelly know that I know you?”

“Do you not remember me mentioning my cousin Kelly that lived across town dozens of times back in high school?”

I must’ve had an incredibly stupid look on my face. She was right, I did remember the name, but I’d never met her. “Ohhhh.”

“The timing finally worked out for us to room together, so here we are,” she said. “But finding out you were both in a class together, that was easy. You complained about Business Stats on Twitter like six times in a single day, and I already knew Kelly’s schedule. I put two and two together, showed her a picture of you, and told her she should find you and introduce herself.”

Kelly nodded. “As it turned out, though, that had been the day I was running late and sat next to you by chance, so we’d already met. When I told Kris, she cooked up this crazy scheme to get you to come over, and, well, here we are.”

I glanced at Kris, and if the smirk on her face didn’t give it away, the twinkle in her eye did. I suddenly understood everything. Kris knew me better than anyone, and my guess was she knew her cousin pretty well too. She was, almost undoubtedly, trying to set us up. This was classic Kris; she’d done it before several times to our other friends, but this was the first time she’d tried it on me. Not that I was complaining.

And to make matters more interesting, the instant I looked at her and realized what was going on, I could tell that she knew that I knew. Kris was almost famous among our old group of friends for this type of stuff. She’d milk the awkwardness out of every situation, and it was even worse when you knew what she was doing.

“From what I’ve heard, you two get along well,” Kris said. “Almost too well.”

“I’m sure you already knew that we would,” I said. This was a strategic move on my part. If I didn’t control the dialogue that resulted from Kris’ questions, Kelly would end up saying something like, “What do you mean?” which would then open Kris up to say, “You two make a great couple.”

Why was I resisting that, though? It was the perfect opportunity to see if Kelly was as curious as I was about getting to know each other better and the potential of that resulting relationship. Wasn’t Kris doing me a favor, even if she was deriving a little too much pleasure out of making things awkward?

“Oh, I did,” Kris said, the look on her face absolutely devious.

She was going to strike. I knew she was about to, and the only way out of it was for me to strike first. Yet, I didn’t want to destroy what Kris was setting up; I just wanted it to be less awkward than I knew she was going to make it. The question was how I would do that.

“Kelly, has Kris ever told you how long we’ve been friends?”

“Didn’t you guys date for a couple weeks in high school?”

“Yeah, but we’ve been friends even longer,” I said. “Do you have our 8th grade yearbook, Kris?”

“Somewhere in my closet,” she said, pausing. “You want to show her the picnic table picture, don’t you?”

I was incredibly proud of how quickly I’d come up with that diversion. Our middle school yearbook had pages and pages full of candid pictures of students hanging out during recess, and one of them had captured the very moment that Kris and I became friends. We’d made a few new mutual friends at our college, and we’d shown that picture to most of them.

“If you don’t mind,” I said.

“Sure,” she said, with a slight knowing nod. I knew I hadn’t thrown her off of her awkward matchmaking game, but I wasn’t trying to. I just needed a minute alone with Kelly, and my tactic had worked.

As soon as Kris left the room, I turned to Kelly.

“You know-“

“Hey, so-“

We both stopped, realizing we were talking over each other pretty quickly.

“Sorry,” I said. “You go first.”

“It’s okay, go ahead.”

I could keep playing the game of being polite, but this was valuable time we were wasting, so I had to temporarily ignore the voice of social etiquette in the back of my head.

“I don’t know if you know this about Kris, but does this thing where she tries to set people up.” I couldn’t believe I was saying it out loud, but I knew what I had to do. “That’s what she’s doing right now, and she’s going to try to make it as awkward as possible. I just wanted to let you know.”

“Wait, you knew?”

I arched an eyebrow. “It’s not Kris’ first matchmaker rodeo. She used to do this all the time in high school.”

“Yeah, trust me, I know,” Kelly said, sighing. “She’s done it before to our cousin Steph. I told her not to pull this on me a loooooong time ago, and as much as I’d like to think she forgot, I’m sure it’s really that she just chose to ignore me.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” I said. “Didn’t go well for your cousin?”

“Actually, Steph is still dating the guy that Kris set her up with.”

I’d never really stopped to think about it, but Kris had played matchmaker with four couples that I knew of. Three of them were still together, and the one that wasn’t broke up amicably because they decided to go to college literally across the country from one another. As much as I hated to admit it-

“Kris is actually pretty good at playing matchmaker.”

It was like Kelly read my mind. But more importantly, I couldn’t believe the implication of what she’d said.

“Wait, are you saying…?” I said, not really sure how to finish the thought.

“I think you’re pretty cool,” she said. “If you want to, it couldn’t hurt to try going out some time, could it?” Her face started to flush a bit, despite how collected she seemed.

“I mean, yeah, for sure. That sounds great, actually.”

“I have to warn you, though,” she said. “I’m kind of a dork.”

“Well, yeah, you’re related to Kris. That should go without saying.”

Kelly laughed. “You know, I was kind of confused and maybe slightly jealous back when Kris first told me about you years ago.”

“Why’s that?”

“I didn’t understand why you two were just friends, but at the same time, the way that she talked about you was so positive, and I guess I wanted to a friendship like that. My friends in middle school were the worst…it’s a long story, but I went almost friendless in 9th grade for a few months after a big falling out with them.”

“Oh wow, that sounds rough.”

“It was, but I eventually made new friends, and then the next year, I heard that you two started dating, and it made me really happy for her. It only confused me more when she told me like three weeks later that you’d broken up but were still friends.”

“Trust me, that confused a lot of people, and it’s kind of hard to explain, but-“

“No, you don’t have to explain,” she said. “The way she talked about you leading up to you coming over, and the way you guys interacted just now – I know it’s complicated, and maybe I’m simplifying it a bit too much, but there is a deep amount of respect and love between you two.”

She didn’t say it, but I knew what she meant, and she was right. Kris and I had spent two formative years together before we tried dating, and it didn’t work because of the exact type of platonic love we had for each other that I knew Kelly was talking about.

“That’s incredibly insightful,” I said. “Spot on, too.”

Kelly smiled. “She’ll probably be back soon. How do you want to handle this?”

I grinned. “Let’s turn the tables on her and act totally oblivious.”

“Oh, absolutely, yes. Let’s.”

Kelly grinned ear to ear, and in that moment, I could not have been happier about what Kris had done for us. My head had intially tried to convince my heart to slow down, but I guess sometimes following my heart couldn’t hurt, especially with Kris’ involvement.

There was no more doubting this; everything about interacting with Kelly had fallen completely into place, and I knew it couldn’t feel more right. Also, I couldn’t ignore that with Kris’ matchmaking success rate, there was a pretty good chance of things working out – you know, statistically speaking.

March 2

Ghost (working title)


ghost (noun) – the disembodied spirit of a dead person manifested among the living

Kat’s flat panel display was the only source of light in her living room, the ceiling fan the only thing loud enough to make noise.  Her nocturnal affinity meant that 11 PM brought her highest state of awareness.  The lightcast display across her desk was turned off, the state it had been in since she’d futzed around on the Internet earlier that day.  Flat panel displays were old technology, but they still made sense in many applications, despite lightcast displays and ARUs having almost taken over for most consumers.

Half of the screen was filled with white-on-black log files she’d pulled up in a shell, the other half with an article on how to flash custom firmware onto her old ARU.  The logs were absolute garbage, only “human readable” if you altered the definition of “human” to require a Ph.D. in computer science.

0x7638A – Update failure.

“Seriously?” she muttered, shaking her head with frustration as she scanned the article for an explanation of that specific error code.

Augmented Reality Units were ubiquitous, and as with any tech, there were people like Kat that felt an innate desire to tinker with them.  Custom firmware only allowed for a handful of additional features while maintaining ARnet compatibility, but the custom stuff did sometimes run better than stock, and Kat was sort of bored that night anyway.

Her main ARU was sitting near the keyboard her fingers were occasionally dancing across.  She relied on that thing way too much to risk downtime, which was why the ARU she was experimenting with was last year’s model that she’d upgraded from several months prior.  To find Kat without an ARU attached to her head, you typically needed to catch her either when she was sleeping, showering, or using an old flat panel.  This, of course, was one of those times, but even though the ARU was on her desk, the bone-conduction speaker was still in her ear.

“Hey Kat, you there?”

Regardless of where the display was, she recognized the voice instantly.

“Hey Nate, I’m here.  What’s up?”

“My sister’s backup is failing.  Could use some help if you have time.”

Kat picked up the ARU and set it carefully on her ears, adjusting the display over her eyes until it sat just how she liked it. 

“Sure, I need a break anyway.  What’s the error?”

“Can I just come over?  It would be easier to show you.”

Kat looked down at the old t-shirt and sleep shorts she was wearing.  “Yeah, just give me five minutes to change.”

“Well, that’s how long it takes to drive to your place.”

“I never know with you.  You could’ve been halfway here already.”

Nate laughed.  “Normally, yeah.  But it’s late, so I didn’t want to assume too much.”

“Please.  You know I’m up until like two every night.  What else would I be doing at 11?”

“Don’t act like you don’t have other friends.”

“Who, Allie?  She went to sleep like half an hour ago.”

“Okay, okay, whatever.  See you in five?”

“Yeah.”

Kat lifted her hand to the ARU, paused, then lowered it.  She wasn’t going to get much done in five minutes, so she figured she may as well leave it on.  In reality, the units looked like thick glasses, but even regular glasses had gotten thicker to match ever-changing styles, kind of like watches had back in the twenty-teens.  Not that Kat had been around to see that, but she’d read about it.

She quickly made her way to the bedroom and changed into the tee and leggings she’d taken off hours ago.  They’d been in a pile on the floor of her closet, but it’s not like Nate would know or care.  Though, on that note, she wasn’t sure why she was changing in the first place.  She was just wearing some fairly unflattering sleep clothes; it wasn’t like she was half-naked. 

Kat shrugged and decided to stop thinking about it.  Not like changing took more than a couple minutes anyway.

She headed to the kitchen to grab a couple bottles of koffee, mostly for Nate since she only sort of liked the stuff, but she weirdly found herself drinking it without him around more than she cared to admit.  “Coffee-flavored, caffeinated water, with a dab of sweetener and a touch of dairy-free cream, specially enhanced to keep you going!”  She’d never forget the ads from when she was a kid. 

The real stuff?  She loved it, but who could afford it anymore?

Nate’s ARU hit Kat’s geofence and automatically requested entrance authorization, which Kat approved almost involuntarily.  She sometimes wished you could set users to auto-allow, but that was a “security concern” for the manufacturers.  Actually, if she could get the custom firmware on her old ARU to work, that was something that might be possible, but that was a problem for another day.

Within Kat’s geofenced area, there were an array of sensors that alerted her of what was going on.  She could see the outline of Nate’s car in her driveway as sort of a distant, slightly transparent wireframe outline, and as soon as he stepped out of it, she could see his outline just the same.  There was a setting to make her walls appear transparent so she could see outside as well, but that freaked her out, even though from outside, no one could see in.

Nate didn’t bother knocking when he got to the door.  He just let himself in the way he always had. 

“Yo.”

“Hey Nate.”

Without an ARU, Kat’s living room was pretty barren, aside from a few tables, the seating area, and the desk and chair she was working from.  With an ARU on, though, the room sprang to life with AROs of wall decorations, plants, artwork, and shifting ceiling color.  She usually kept the TV hidden until she needed it, but when activated, it pushed aside a couple of paintings and took up most of the wall across from the sofa.

Since Nate was entering Kat’s digital space in the ARnet, her apartment looked exactly to him as it did to her.  That was part of the beauty of the ARU’s and their connected nature – shared virtual space.  The virtual plant on the real coffee table didn’t exist anywhere except the ARnet, but if everyone could see it, and everyone got the sensory input from it to their implants, then could you really say it didn’t exist?  What was real and what wasn’t were separated by quite a blurry line.

“So, did you really need help with a backup, or were you just bored?”

Nate shrugged.  “A little of both.”

“Well, what’s going on with Heather’s backup, then?”

“There’s some kind of failure related to the upload.  She’s freaking out about it.”

Kat rolled her eyes.  “Freaking Ghost Generation.  It’s as if humanity hadn’t survived for thousands of years without copies of their memories being stored on remote computers.”

“Jesus, Kat, could you act any more like a grandma?  You’re 19, not 70.”

She shrugged.  “I can’t help it, but I guess she’s been conditioned to act that way as well.”

“In fairness, she has never known a world without backups.  We have.”

There had been a period of rapid technology advancement and cost reduction in 2042 that had ultimately led to widespread adoption of neural implant and backup technology in 2043.  Kat was eight years old when she got implanted, which meant Heather had been three – the absolute earliest age you could be implanted.  That generation was only five years younger than Kat and Nate, but their psychological dependency on knowing they were being backed up was, to be frank, frightening to those that had at least a few formative years without the backup system.

What did being backed up even get you when you died?  A Ghost in the ARnet?  That was for loved ones, not you.  It isn’t like your consciousness would continue to exist.  It was just a more realistic way than photos or videos to relive memories of those that had passed.

“If this is a SpecterCorp issue, I can’t really do anything about it,” Kat said.

“I know, but you know how Heather idolizes you,” Nate said, rolling his eyes.  “I could tell her ten times to call support and she wouldn’t do it, but if you told her once, her ARU would already have the number queued up and ready to dial.”

Kat laughed.  “Fine, fine, let me take a look.  You have her login authorization tokens?”

He lifted his hand, and an access card manifested between his thumb and forefinger.  “Yep.”

She reached over and grabbed the card, the distinct feeling of skin-to-plastic subconsciously present until she squeezed her hand into a fist, vanishing the card into thin air.  It was a silly way to digitally pass authorization when you really thought about it, but Kat loved its simplicity.  It was skeuomorphic design at its absolute most brilliant.

Kat lifted the ARU off of her face, set it down on her desk, and paused before taking a seat.  “This might take a bit.”  She thumbed at the koffee on the table.  “Help yourself.”

Nate nodded and grabbed a bottle.  “Thanks.”

Some people considered typing a lost skill, but Kat had learned it in her early teens for fun.  She actually found it to be therapeutic to mash out thoughts rather than just speaking them into one of the dozens of microphones on basically any gadget you could buy these days.  You could even code using voice assistants if you wanted; in fact, most programmers did.  Only the really old school tedchies used honest-to-God, plastic and metal actuating keyboards.  Well, them and Kat.

After clattering away on the keyboard for a few moments, Kat realized that Heather’s backup was failing due to the data being malformed.  It was a square-peg-in-round-hole problem, more or less.

“The database build failed, her backup is sending data the server doesn’t know how to process,” Kat said.  “She needs to wait until tomorrow.”

“That’s what I told her,” Nate said.  “She was having none of that, clearly.”

Kat rolled her eyes.  “She has a good backup from yesterday, is it seriously that big of a deal to her?”

“Do you really think I’d be over here after 11 PM on a Wednesday night if it wasn’t?”

“Uh, yes?” Kat said.

Nate frowned.  “On Friday or Saturday night, sure, but-”

“You were on my sofa until midnight last Tuesday watching old horror movies,” Kat said.

He opened his mouth briefly to protest but realized he had been backed into a corner.

“I will never understand how someone as smart as you can have such a catastrophically poor memory,” Kat said.

“Fine, fine, you win,” Nate said.  “Can you just please tell Heather to wait till tomorrow and her backup will be magically fixed?  I really don’t feel like sitting on the phone with SpecterCorp support for an hour to wait for a manual backup authorization token.”

“Sure,” Kat said, picking up her ARU and situating it on her face again.  “Call Heather Droyer.”

She didn’t blame Nate for reacting exactly as he had.  Manual backups were a royal pain in the butt.  Heather was almost definitely losing nothing of value by waiting until the next day for her backup to complete.  The only way it would matter is if she died in the next 10ish hours, for which, of course, there was an incredibly low statistical probability.

“Hello?”

“Hi Heather, it’s Kat.”

“Hi Kat!”

Nate’s little sister loved Kat, which was quite a puzzling fact.  Heather had no interest in tech beyond typical consumer usage, and they honestly didn’t have a lot in common.  Sure, there was an argument to be made that Kat’s success at just 19 years old had made her a strong female role model, but Heather always treated Kat much more like a friend than someone she looked up to.

“Hey, listen, about your backup…”

“Oh, yeah!  Did you get it working?”

“It should be fine, it’s just a transient error.”  Kat paused, realizing that a non-tech-savvy 14-year-old might not know what that meant.  “It’s no cause for alarm, it’s just temporary.  The backup will work tomorrow.”

“Okay, are you sure?”

“I can’t make any promises, but if it doesn’t work tomorrow, just let me know, okay?”

“Okay, thank you, Kat!”

“No problem, but you really should trust your brother more.  He knows how to do this stuff, too.”

“I guess so,” she replied sheepishly.

“Night Heather.”

“Good night, Kat!”

Kat sighed and looked over at Nate, who was mid-swig of koffee, the bottle in his hand nearly empty.

“Geez Nate, do you not have anything to drink in your apartment?”

“Of course I do,” he said.  “Koffee just tastes better when I’m bumming it off of you.”

Kat rolled her eyes and rose out of her chair, taking a sip out of the koffee bottle she’d already opened.  It was slightly sweet, bitter like the darkest of dark chocolate, but went down like water.  The texture was bizarre and totally lacked smoothness, despite there definitely being some sort of cream in it.  How Nate could just guzzle the whole bottle down like he always did was a mystery to her.

“Anyway, I owe you one.  Sorry for intruding on you for something so silly.  I appreciate you humoring my sister.”

“No problem, I needed a break anyway,” Kat said.

“A break from what?” he asked, knocking back the last of the koffee and setting the bottle down on the nearest end table.

“I’ve been trying to install the Harp firmware on my old ARU all night,” she said.  “Dumb thing keeps failing.”

“Oh, we had the same one last gen, right?  The Linz model C?”

“Yeah.”

“You updating it from Viola or the stock stuff?”

“Stock.  I didn’t mess with the first release of the custom firmware, heard way too many stories about bricked ARUs.”

“Me too, but Harp worked fine for me.  I updated my model C yesterday.”

Kat raised an eyebrow.  She gestured over to her computer, made a fist, twisted it clockwise, then pulled her arm back toward the sofa as if she were slinging a ball with a Trac Ball racket.  The screen of her computer appeared at the trajectory of her fist, at which point she released it and pointed at the error code that was still pulled up in the terminal.

“You didn’t get this error?” she asked.

“No, it went off without a hitch.”

“Huh,” Kat said, frowning.

“There’s almost definitely no way I’d know how to fix it if you couldn’t, but I could point you to a really good group on Social Queue if you weren’t still refusing to be involved with social media.”

“Yeah, thanks, but I’d a slightly less creepy option.”

Nate rolled his eyes.  “Says the girl that walks around with like five cameras and microphones on her person at all times.”

Kat winced.  It was true, ARUs had quite an array of hardware that could potentially be used for the creepiest and most personal kinds of spying, but she at least had doubts that Linz was doing that with their hardware.  Social Queue?  Spying – or “data collection,” as some people liked to call it – was their entire business model.

“At least ARUs are useful for more than getting in virtual arguments.”

Nate laughed.  “Well, I guess you’ll have to find help on a forum or something.”

“I was actually thinking about heading down to First and Zero.”

He arched an eyebrow.  “The hackerspace?”

She nodded.  “That’s the one.”

“You ever been there before?”

“No, never really had a need.  Also wouldn’t have gone by myself.”

Nate sighed.  “I can see where this is going.  What time do you want to go?”

“Now.”

“Kat, it’s 11:30.  You can’t be serious.”

“Name one important thing you have to do tomorrow before noon.”

“I, well…”

Kat and Nate were both freelancers, which meant they set their own schedules.  They frequently collaborated, and while they didn’t keep tabs on each other, per se, they were both at least somewhat aware of each other’s calendar.

“Didn’t you just tell me you owed me one?”

“I guess you’re right,” Nate sighed.  “We’re taking your car, though.”

Kat smiled.  “That’s more like it.”

First and Zero was in the warehouse district downtown, or, put more specifically, was in an old warehouse.  It was the stereotypical space you’d expect to find a bunch of modern hacker-nerds working together on their passion projects or just chilling.  Nate passed by it frequently when he used to live with his parents, but not so much anymore.  He wasn’t entirely sure what kinds of things went down there, but he’d always imagined some of it was illicit.  The thought crossed his mind as he climbed into the right side of Kat’s car, but wasn’t sure how to bring it up.

“Set drive mode, destination First and Zero.”

“My pleasure, Kat,” the nav system responded as it slowly and silently propelled the car forward.  “Proceeding to route.”

“Hey, Kat.”

“Yeah?” she said, turning her seat slightly toward him.

“This place isn’t, like, trouble, is it?”

“Trouble?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know, I guess I always used to imagine a hackerspace as like, the real-life version of the dark web, before the feds killed it.”

“Oh, geez, no,” Kat said.  “Did you really think I’d take you to some kind of seedy, back alley hacker ring?”

Nate shrugged.

“First and Zero is like, super chill.  You’ll see.”

“How would you know if you’ve never been?” Nate asked, pausing briefly, his eyes darting to the side as his head followed a slight arch.  “Oh.  Jack?”

“Yeah.”

Even though the settings for Ghosts were extremely granular, giving the option to see only exactly what you wanted to see, Kat still kept Ghosts turned off on her ARU.  Nate saw Jack’s Ghost in the ARnet sometimes, particularly near the dog park by his place.  Sometimes Kat was within several feet of Jack and she wouldn’t know it, because Nate kept his mouth shut.

Nate spun his seat around to face the back of the car, then made a few flicking motions with his fingers toward the empty space in front of him.  Several security settings popped up, which he then pushed to his friend-level AR space.

“Do you think I need to change any of this?” he asked.

Kat spun around and pored over the settings.  “No, I think you’ll be fine.  It’s not like we’re going to DEF CON.”

Nate understood well enough that his security settings were fine.  He meant it as a distraction from the previous topic, but perhaps he’d made an error in judgement to talk about something that Kat would know he was quite capable of on his own.  Or maybe he was just overthinking it.

“I really have no idea what to expect,” he said.

“Just chill, we’ll find out.”

The truth was that Kat was a little anxious, considering she wasn’t great with people outside of a professional context, but she wasn’t worried about walking into an underground crime ring like Nate seemed to be.  She breathed a deep sigh and glanced over at the console.

The nav system showed two minutes until arrival, and due to the time of day, Kat was fairly certain it was correct.  Traffic was much less predictable during the day, even for the advanced, interconnected piloting systems and all of their fancy algorithms, but 11:45 at night?  No one was on the road.

Sure enough, a couple minutes later, Kat’s car located a parking spot right outside First and Zero, coming to a rest as silently as it had taken off.  A lot of the hacker-types had their own cars, despite car-ownership steadily declining since the ‘20s.  During the day, this meant there was a higher concentration of cars at First and Zero than other places, but there was ample parking due to the spaces at the nearby businesses and residences being freed up.  You would guess that time of day would also mean that there would be ample parking, but the place seemed as busy as ever from the outside.

Kat and Nate exited the car, prompting the locking system to immediately activate once Kat’s ARU left the car’s AR space.  They walked across the street and up to the oversized metal doors, which still seemed small against the face of the multistory brick wall.

“Do we just…go in?” Nate asked.

Kat shrugged.  “I guess so.”

She reached out for the door handle, and instantly, a notification popped up on both of their ARUs.

Notice: this AR space is private, and by entering, you consent to the rules and terms set forth by First and Zero.  Swipe to see more.

“Wow, they actually employ terms-of-service fencing,” Nate said.  “I can’t even remember the last time I’ve seen that at a business.”

Kat had ToS fencing turned on at her house, as did Nate, but both of them had accepted the terms on each other’s AR spaces so long ago that they’d almost definitely forgotten what they’d agreed to. 

Businesses were exempt from the ToS fencing mandate that applied to personal AR spaces.  It was a weird and controversial law, but most of the population had ToS fatigue and just accepted the terms as soon as they popped up without reading them anyway.  Anyone that wanted to see the terms could still request them, as they were still required to exist at the border of commercial AR spaces, but they didn’t pop up automatically. 

Nate was usually pretty indifferent to reading the terms, but Kat usually assumed that every business was always collecting everything they could about everyone they could.  She was familiar with the terms of most of the places she frequented, though she usually only skimmed for certain words and phrases for places she only planned on going to once.

This situation was totally different, though.  First and Zero didn’t have to display anything, which meant they were doing this because they wanted to.  It was so intriguing that Kat and Nate instinctively stood there for several moments absorbing the terms.

First and Zero is a private establishment categorized as “entertainment and social” under the ARnet Consortium business doctrine, section 3C.  As per subsection 5, point iii, the ARnet within First and Zero’s AR space is privately hosted and does not reside on public ARnet servers or fall within public ARnet guidelines.  You agree that by entering, you are doing so at your own risk.

First and Zero does not collect any personally identifiable data.  The only demographic data we collect is your age, which is assigned to an anonymized token and discarded once you leave the facility.  This is to ensure you meet the age limit restriction of 18+ years.

By entering First and Zero, you assume all responsibilities for your actions.  Illegal activity is not allowed.  The onus of…

Kat stopped reading and just skimmed the rest at that point, as it became the same, boilerplate language she’d seen dozens of times before.

“Wow, this place is serious,” Nate said.  “How do they make money if they don’t collect any data?  Do they sell anything inside?”

“There’s probably a cover charge,” Kat said.  “I’ll pay, don’t worry.”

“A cover charge?” Nate said, though mostly to himself.  That was something he’d only seen in movies.  Paying to get into any establishment seemed so old-fashioned this day and age.

Kat reached for the door handle once again, this time pulling it all the way open.  She held her breath, for some odd reason, then crossed the threshold into First and Zero.  The age verification request popped up immediately, and upon her acceptance, was followed by a payment transfer request.

“$40?” Nate said.  “Yeesh, I could get a whole six-pack of koffee for that.”

“Quit whining, you get free koffee at my place, and they’re not harvesting your data,” Kat said.

“You know I don’t care about data collection as much as you do,” he said.  “I’d rather get in free, honestly.”

“Well, you are getting in free, since I’m paying for this anyway.”

“You know what I mean.”

The room was totally open once you passed through the short entrance hallway.  The expanse of the space’s former life as a warehouse was certainly evident by the sheer volume of air in the building.  The overhead lights were dimmed so heavily that you could legitimately say most of the interior lighting was coming from the various flat panel displays that lined the tables and walls.  There wasn’t a lightcast display in sight, but ARUs were so ubiquitous here that there was almost definitely no need for a display that essentially functioned as a limited ARO.

It was a little bizarre to see a place like this abuzz with chatter and Augmented Reality Objects.  In fact, the amount of AROs was staggering, but what else would you expect from a hackerspace?  Kat could feel her ARU heating up against her left temple as it struggled to maintain the integrity of the AR space.  She briefly glanced at her ARU’s metrics and was not-so-shocked to find that the bandwidth of practically every major bus was maxed out.

AROs were sort of easy to spot because they could be both simple and extremely functional, which was difficult, nigh impossible to do with physical objects that were restrained by reality.  There was a couple in the corner of the room playing chess, but there was no table.  The pieces and the board simply hovered where they needed to be.  Nearby, there were flat panel monitors, which measured only a few millimeters thick, but since an ARO could exist in only two dimensions, they usually had no actual thickness.  If you looked at an ARO display straight on from the side, you would see nothing.  Spotting those types of things was a skill you quickly picked up in the ARnet, sometimes subconsciously.

“Whoa,” Nate said.  “There’s a ton of Ghosts here.”

Ghosts, unlike AROs, were designed to perfectly emulate the likeness of their physical counterpart except for one thing – they were semi-transparent.  Since people could make AROs of themselves, there needed to be a distinguishing feature, and that seemed to be the most obvious way to do it.  Of course, there were low-end ARUs that made everything look semi-transparent, in which case, they’d give users a selection of ways to distinguish ghosts, usually with a thick black outline or some sort of aura effect.

“You’re not kidding,” Kat said, counting out at least 10 near the entrance alone.  “I wonder what the Ghost policy is here?”

Public ARnet spaces didn’t allow Ghosts except for a few specific places: public parks, certain libraries, and courtrooms, though the last one was specifically restricted to trials that involved the person that the Ghost was a backup of.  Of course, privately registered spaces on the public ARnet, like a person’s house, a cemetery, or even a grocery story could allow ghosts if they wanted, but there were restrictions and limits to that as well.

First and Zero, though, was a completely private ARnet instance.  When they’d walked through the doors, the network communication in their ARUs had switched from the public ARnet subscription service they paid for to the privately hosted ARnet service offered at First and Zero.  This, of course, meant the establishment could choose exactly what they allowed in their AR space.

“Probably former regulars?  This place has been here for like a decade now.”

“Maybe,” Kat said, eyeing a few of the semi-transparent people in the room.  Because she kept Ghosts turned off on her ARU, it was a little weird to see them suddenly.  It was unlike her to miss that type of thing, but allowing Ghosts must’ve been a part of the terms of service that she’d skimmed over.

“You okay?” Nate said, eyeing Kat from the side.

“Yeah.  It’s not like Jack is here.”  She paused, frowning.  “Although, I guess he could be.”

“I’ll tell you if I see him.”

They continued past the crowd, observing quietly how the social and practical function of the place seemed to work.  Where they’d seen the couple playing chess, there appeared to be numerous other groups playing both traditional games and several different types of video games.  Kat saw no formal signage, physical or virtual, that denoted a specific usage for that space, so she assumed it was a naturally formed division of space that regulars just knew and respected.

If that was the case, then all she needed to do was find the people that were actually hacking.  She had never expected the entire warehouse to be filled with only one activity, but she was a bit surprised to see the diversity.  She definitely would’ve thought a hackerspace would’ve at least been mostly hackers hacking, yet she continued to pass by areas of paintings being painted, karaoke being sung, movies being watched, and even a group dressed in varying costumes that Kat did not recognize at all.

Weirdest of all, there were Ghosts in every single group.  Even when she’d had Ghosts enabled, Kat had never seen this many in one place, except maybe at the cemetery.

Toward the back of the room, Kat finally saw what she’d been looking for: people gathered around various flat panel displays, hardware strewn out on tables, 3D printers whirring as they printed boards and other components.  These were definitely her people.  If she could find help getting Harp installed properly on her old ARU anywhere in the city, it would be right here from these people.

“What do we do?” Nate whispered.  “Just walk up and ask for help?”

Kat tried to stop herself from saying what she was about to say, but her desire to get her old ARU updated won over the social anxiety that tried to drag her down.

“Just leave it to me.”

She quickly scanned the faces at the tables in front of her, zeroed in on the one that seemed the friendliest, and began walking toward him.  Kat hated asking for help, and she hated talking to strangers, so this was not exactly easy for her.

Kat stopped just a foot or so away from the table, smiled, and tried to bring out some of the charisma she kept carefully locked away.

“Hi there, I’m Kat.”  She reached her hand out, the gesture quickly returned by the guy at the table.

“JC.”  He arched an eyebrow.  “You new around here?”

“Yeah,” she gestured back to Nate. “Nate and I are looking for some help with something.”

“Sure, depends on what you need, though.”

“Well, do you know if anyone around here has experience with Harp firmware installation errors?”

JC perked up.  “On what?  The model F you’re wearing?”

Kat shook her head, dug into her bag, and pulled out her old ARU.  “No, this model C.”

“Oh!  I can’t personally help you with that model, but Zee can.”  JC thumbed over to a girl at the next table.  “I think the Linz Correction firmware guard is giving you issues.  Zee fixed a couple of those for some of our regulars just yesterday.”

“Awesome, just what I was hoping to hear!” Kat said.  “Thank you.”

“Sure, no problem,” JC said, pausing.  “You said you’ve never been here before?”

Kat nodded.  “Yep.”

“Weird, you look sort of familiar.”

“Well, I can’t promise I don’t have a doppelganger, but I can promise this is my first time here.”

JC laughed and gave a slight wave.  “I’ll take your word for it.”

“Thanks, JC,” Nate said.

“Yeah, and nice to meet you.”

“You guys, too.”

Kat and Nate turned and walked over to the table Zee was sitting at, Kat once again preparing for a social interaction that she dreaded starting.

But, miraculously, she was spared from that horror.

“Hey,” Zee said.  “I heard JC say my name over there.  Who are you guys?”

“Hi Zee, I’m Kat, and this is Nate.”

Nate and Zee exchanged nods, and Kat stood there awkwardly, not sure if she should also nod or proffer a hand like she had for JC.  However, Kat was once again spared the trouble as Zee raised both her hands, palms forward.

“I’d shake your hands, but I’ve been ripping apart these old rigs for the past hour, and as you can see, my hands are a bit grimy.”

“No worries,” Kat said.  “I appreciate you stopping in the middle of what you’re doing to humor a couple strangers.”

“Trust me, it’s not unusual for me to get interrupted around here.  If I wanted no distractions, I wouldn’t be at First and Zero.”

Kat and Nate both laughed, Kat especially happy to see that Zee seemed pretty chill.

“You been here before?” Zee asked, eyeing Kat very peculiarly.

“No,” Kat said.  “First time for both of us.”

“Weird, could’ve sworn I’ve seen you before,” Zee said.  “Anyway, what can I help you with?”

Kat placed the ARU she was still holding on the table.  “I tried flashing this thing with the Harp firmware and it failed pretty badly.  JC mentioned maybe Linz Correction was the culprit?”

“Wow, this again, huh?” Zee said, reaching for the Model C.  “This is the third one I’ve seen this week.  Yeah, I can definitely fix this.”

“That would be great!” Kat said.

Zee took the ARU and pressed in a couple of buttons on the side to put it into wireless restore mode.

“You wouldn’t believe the crap they’re trying to pull to make these things tamper-proof,” Zee said, assumedly swiping at a bunch of menus that Kat and Nate couldn’t see.  “Surprisingly, though, that wasn’t the problem here.”

“Huh,” Kat said.  “What was it then?”

“And how’d you figure out the fix?” Nate added.  “Usually Kat can figure this stuff out pretty easily.”

“It was a total fluke,” Zee said, still swiping and poking at things they couldn’t see.  “The update worked on my Model C, but not Jenna’s.”  She thumbed to a girl a few tables away with a remarkably long side ponytail.  “When I looked at the firmware interface, I noticed different part numbers on the Hardware Security Chip.”

The gears in Kat’s brain suddenly began to churn.

“Oh!” she said.  “That makes so much more sense now!  Nate’s also updated just fine.”

“Yeah,” Zee said, “It’s frustrating, but they used different suppliers for the Hardware Security Chip.”

“What did you have to change to get Harp to work on the other HSC?” Nate asked.

“Luckily, the vuln that allows the Harp installation isn’t in the HSC, so all you have to do is make the installer ignore the hardware mismatch error.”

“So, the installation was failing because it thought my Model C wasn’t a Model C due to that one component difference…”

“Exactly,” Zee said.  “I should really get around to posting the fix online, but I keep forgetting.”

“I’ve actually been curious about this place for a while, anyway,” Kat said.  “Just needed a good excuse to drag him along with me.”

Nate rolled his eyes but remained quiet.

“I don’t know what I would do without First and Zero,” Zee said.  “The community here gives me purpose.  There’s just nothing else like it.”

“Not even other hackerspaces?” Nate asked.

“Oh, I’m sure there are some great ones out there.  It’s just more like…these people are my family, you know?”

“Right, I gotcha,” Nate said.

Zee made one big swipe downward, which usually indicated closing down an ARO.  “Done.”

“Wow, really?  That fast?” Kat said.

“Trust me, it took a lot longer the first time.”

Kat picked her old ARU up off the table and examined it briefly.  The status indicator was glowing faint white, which meant that it was booted and awaiting skin contact.  With little hesitation, she plucked her Model F off and situated the Model C in its place. 

“You ever used that model in a place with this many AROs before?” Zee asked.

“No.  Judging from how hot my Model F was getting, I can’t imagine performance was that great.”

“They normally scale the integrity down based on your preferential order,” Zee said.  “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that with HarpOS, though.”

“Whoa, no kidding,” Kat said, glancing around the room as if she were seeing it for the first time.  “This thing is keeping up as well as the new one.”

“HarpOS handles local ARnets way better than the stock stuff,” Zee said.  “If you were looking at an ARO cluster like this outside, integrity scaling would definitely be noticeable.”

“This is so cool, I can’t wait to mess around with this when I get home,” Kat said.

“I have to ask, out of curiosity,” Zee said.  “Why did you care about installing HarpOS when you have a Model F?”

Kat answered without hesitation.  “The privacy controls.”

“Ah, you wanted to test the Discretionary Anonymization System before putting it on your new ARU.  Smart.”

Kat nodded, continuing to examine her surroundings.

“She’s a bit of a privacy nut,” Nate said.

“I don’t blame her,” Zee said. 

“Do you have HarpOS on your main ARU?” Kat asked.

“I do,” Zee said.  “Linz Model F, just like yours.  No problems so far.”

“Cool, well, I can’t thank you enough for sparing the time to fix this for me,” Kat said.

“No worries,” Zee said, pausing and quickly eyeing Kat again from top to bottom.  “You sure you’ve never been here before?”

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Kat thought, but kept to herself as she searched and found the only answer she really had.

“Yeah…”

“Sorry, I believe you, I could just swear…well, anyway, catch you again later maybe?”

Kat glanced over at Nate.  “I guess since I don’t have to worry about dragging him along, probably so.”

“Oh please, you know I’ll probably tag along anyway.”

Zee laughed and half-waved.  “Take care, you two.”

Kat and Nate reciprocated the gesture, turned in the direction they’d come from, and began walking.  Nate, having become more and more intrigued with the place, was moving at a snail’s pace as he admired each and every little group doing its own thing.

“Do you want to hang for a bit before leaving?” Kat asked, unable to ignore Nate’s obvious fascination.

“Sort of,” he said, homing in on a group in the corner.  “There are some people back there playing old tabletop games, and I think they’re real.”

Even Kat’s eyes lit up at that news.  “Whoa, really?”

She followed Nate’s gaze to the back corner, and sure enough, it appeared that there was a group playing actual, physical tabletop games.  Kat couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a real game, as almost everything in that genre had been replaced with AROs, which technically made them video games, if you wanted to split hairs.

“I’m with you, we gotta check that out,” Kat said.

Nate nodded and began leading the way through the groups of people and Ghosts.  It was actually a bit crowded, and even though you could technically ignore the tactile feeling from AROs that typically had collision turned on – like Ghosts – you could simply push your way through if you wanted to, but that was considered rude to anyone the Ghost might be interacting with.  For that reason, if there was a crowd of Ghosts around even just one person, you wouldn’t just go walking through the middle of them.

That didn’t mean you couldn’t excuse yourself and ask to be allowed through, though, which was what Nate was attempting to do as he played Moses with the sea of Ghosts and people that stood before him.

As they made their way through the crowd, it was inevitable that they’d bump into a few AROs and people in such a crowded space, and Kat quickly noted that even with HarpOS running on her newly improved Model C, she still couldn’t turn off collision entirely in a private ARnet…unless there was something she was missing.  It probably wasn’t the best idea to pore over ARU settings as she followed Nate, and sure enough, as soon as the thought crossed her mind that she should wait till later, she slammed right into the back of a Ghost.

Well, maybe “slammed” isn’t the best word, but full on ARO collision did cause every touch-based sensory implant to vibrate as forcefully as possible, which was arguably almost as jarring as actually walking into a person.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Kat said as she practically jumped back.  She didn’t know why she found herself apologizing to the Ghost, but as the last generation before the Ghost Generation, it was likely just force of habit that was probably already dying out of the social conscience. 

The Ghost, a female, began to turn around just as you’d a expect a person to in the same situation.  Kat always felt awkward looking Ghosts in the face, because she knew she was literally staring in the eyes of a dead person, but as this Ghost’s profile came into view, Kat began feeling a very different emotion than mere embarrassed self-consciousness.

The raven bangs, the pale skin, the lazy makeup, the impossibly green eyes – it was like looking into a mirror.  Kat’s blood ran cold as her mind emptied, searching for an explanation of what she was seeing.

But there was none.

As soon as the Ghost made eye contact with Kat, its own eyes grew wide, and it winked out of existence before Kat could force a word out of her mouth.

“Kat?  Kat, what’s wrong?” Nate said, now having turned back to see why she was no longer behind him.

“I…” she trailed off.  “I…”

“Yeah?” he said, seeming more and more concerned the longer Kat fumbled over the pronoun.

“I just saw my own Ghost.”

February 26

Iterate

I haven’t posted anything here in a while, and that’s because I’ve been focused on Iterate for apparently over half a year now.  I honestly didn’t realize I started writing it in late June, but apparently that is the case.

Anyway, Iterate will be published soon, but much more info can be found at the link above, which is my author portfolio site.  I don’t plan on publishing writings there, and I might link to this site from there in the future.

Also, I have posted entire chapters from novels here in the past, and while I may continue to do this as sort of a single-chapter promotional thing, going forward, this site will be flash fiction, short stories, and the ever-so-rare poem only.

Stay tuned.

July 27

5 – Media

The second row of keys didn’t work either, and to make matters worse, I got caught again.  The most frustrating thing was that I was prepared this time.  I looked over, made sure Bookie was still occupied, and when I tried to open the door, she noticed me.

That meant I either needed to get back to the door faster, or wait longer before trying.  Something about that particular window of time was hardcoded, and Bookie was going to look at the door no matter what I did.  Tomorrow’s iteration I’d have the right key, and I’d nail the exit.

*     *     *

I had the third row of keys in my hand, and I was just feet from the door, but I needed to wait another minute before trying.  Without knowing the exact moment that Bookie was going to look at the door, I couldn’t move with the precision that I’d become accustomed to in the rest of my school routine.

I also needed to consider that I couldn’t wait too long, because then Deskie might catch me either leaving the library or trying to open the lab with the keys I’d pilfered.  The thought of repeating this sequence of events again was just about the least appealing thing I could think of at that particular moment, so failure wasn’t an option.

Alright, enough time had passed.  It was time to make a move.  Bookie had moved over to another shelf, which wasn’t something I’d seen her do in either of the previous iterations.  This made a ton of sense, as she had probably noticed me before when she was moving around.

Without thinking about it too hard, I bolted for the door.  This time, there was no accusatory voice from behind me.  I’d finally made it.

I closed the door behind me, nodded at Hay, and we scurried across the hall.  There was no time to pat ourselves on the back or think about anything else; I just started shoving keys into the lock as quickly as I could.  Like some kind of cruel joke, the very last key was the right one.  Key 3E, just in case we needed it again.

We went into the computer lab and locked the door behind us, keeping the lights off.  I even dimmed the monitor so no one would notice a glow coming from within the room.  Hay sat beside me and watched as I once again attempted to break into the school’s network, which I suppose could’ve been interesting in some cases, but not particularly in this one.  I’m sure she felt more frustrated than anything since she couldn’t really help.

It took about 30 minutes, but I was finally able to get the access I needed.  The problem now was finding the right computer that housed the video file.  I was once again working in theory, but all I could do was try.  With my new domain admin access, I downloaded and installed some directory software that showed usernames, computer names, and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t care about.

The directory was all hierarchical, so from the top, starting at the name of the school, I clicked on Member Servers.  From there, I could pick from an assortment of categories: Domain Controllers, File Shares, Application Servers, and Multimedia.  Would it be on a file share?  I scanned through the list of server names and descriptions, but none of them struck a chord with me.

Teacher Shares

Staff Shares

Admin Shares

Software

Student Shares

Admin Shares, maybe?

I turned to Hay.  “If you were Principal Groves or Vice Principal Daniels, where would you put the morning announcement video files?”

“Only from that list on the screen?”

I went back up a level.  “It could also be somewhere in one of these folders, I guess.”

“What about multimedia?”

“Hmm.”  I clicked on the Multimedia category, which expanded into a whopping two server names: NHSLibrary and NHSTV.

“Bingo, that’s gotta be it!”

I opened Remote Desktop, typed “NHSTV” into the remote computer name field, then pressed Connect.  The program paused for a moment, then began connecting to the computer named NHSTV.  This had to be the right computer, so now all I had to do was find where the video files were stored.

I poked around the desktop, in the documents folder, the videos folder, and a few other unlikely places without any luck.  I was so close, but I was missing something.  Where were the files hiding?

“On our computer at home, we have separate usernames and all of our files are separate.  Could that be the case here?”

I smacked my forehead with the palm of my hand.  “I’m so dumb.  Thank you.”

“Did that help?”

“Immensely.”

I drilled down into the folder structure from the root of the local drive until I found exactly what I was looking for: user folders for the principal and vice principal.  If the files weren’t there, I was stuck, and the entire plan would have to be changed.

I double-clicked the folder for the principal and then opened his documents.  The folder was unsettlingly empty.  I thought for sure that would be it.

Wait though, I was thinking too much like myself.  In the principal’s shoes…

I opened the folder for his desktop and was met with a list of 20 or so video files.  Hay was right to think about how her family computer worked.  My parents threw everything on their desktop, and my hunch that Principal Groves operated in the same way had proven true.

“Did you find it?”

“Maybe…” I said as I scoured the filenames.  They were all default names from the camera that had taken them, all of which included a date and time.  One of these had to be it.  One of them was certainly-

I froze.

MVC_82718.mov

This was it.  I was staring at something that could hold a clue to our hopeless situation.  It was exciting, and it was terrifying.

I copied the file over the network to the lab computer I was using, then closed the remote connection and copied the file from the computer to my thumb drive so I could take it home.  That was for deeper analysis later today, since after all, it would disappear at midnight.

But for now, I plugged in earbuds and handed Hay the left earpiece, putting the right one in my ear nearest her.  I opened the file, the computer churned over the idea, and then it began playing.

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

I slammed the space bar down and turned to Hay.  She turned to me and we just shook our heads at each other in disbelief.  I didn’t have ability to put into words how confusing this was.

“I…I don’t understand.”

I think we both expected the file to be as we remembered it – that is, lacking the word “unfortunate.”  Had that been the case, it would imply that the file could’ve been somehow altered today, which absolutely made the most sense.  After all, only August 28th could change.  That was the hard rule of our entire world for the past 40-something years’ worth of iterations.

But with that one word in the morning announcements, all of that came into question.  Something from August 27th had changed.

*     *     *

We sat on my bed playing the video over and over on my laptop.  It had looped four times, and we were sure that there was only the one difference.  Yet, that one difference meant everything to us, and somehow also nothing.

The path to figuring this mystery out started and ended with Principal Groves, and there was no easy way for us to get the information we needed.  We already knew how barging into his office and demanding answers would go, and it’s not like we could take time to befriend him or something to gradually get the answers we needed.

“What if time is actually rewinding to August 27th, but not for us?” I said.

“I guess that’s possible.  Maybe we’re sleeping through it.”  We had no way to wake up earlier since our alarms couldn’t be reset.

“The only way we can know is to ask someone else every day to detail the evening of August 27th.”

“Who could we ask?  Principal Groves?” Hay asked.

“I mean, it has to be, right?  Something changed and it involved him, so he’s our only lead.”

“We have to get him to trust us somehow…”

“…every day, over and over, until we get something valuable out of him.”

Hay frowned.  “That seems impossible.”

“Maybe not.  I think we just need a very specific victory once, and then we can ride it out from there.”

“And that victory is…?”

“A password.  Something that only he knows.  Something that once the day resets, we can go back to him with and he’d have no choice but to believe that we’re telling the truth.”

“You mean like what we did with Mrs. Chen forever ago?”

It was true.  We’d failed with the password strategy before.  The key was in getting our subject to trust us once by providing them some big secret of theirs that we knew, and then the other dominos would fall.  But how did we get an adult to trust us with a major secret?

With Mrs. Chen, we’d tried with smaller secrets.  I pulled her aside before class and told her I knew about the presentation she was going to show us, even giving very detailed descriptions of it and the photos she included.  Her reaction was to accuse me of hacking her, then sending me to the principal’s office.  Of course, I just bailed on school for the rest of that day, but the point is that we’d learned early on that people that have no good reason to believe you will always find reasons not to, despite evidence pointing otherwise.

However, there was one time that the password strategy did work, but it required very specific circumstances.  Early on, Hay and I had a theory that maybe the day had been repeating for much longer than we could remember and that something had snapped both of us out of it at the same time.  We figured that maybe once you somehow became aware of the repetitions and believed they were real, that it could trigger whatever phenomenon it was that made Hay and I able to remember.

We tried the password strategy on my friend David.  He was the easiest possible person to try with, because we’d been best friends for a long time and there were lots of things that only I knew about him, and perhaps just as importantly, lots of things that only he knew about me.

Hay and I got to school early, confronted him before homeroom, and I explained what was going on.  I told him I knew it sounded unbelievable, but I had proof.  I went into detail about how homeroom would go, then the beginning of the class, and the major bullet points of Mrs. Chen’s lecture.

I told him, “For now, be as skeptical as you want, but after class, you’ll believe me.”

He looked me in the eyes and said, “This is crazy, but…I believe you.”

I was shocked.  “Why so quickly?  I gave you proof, you can wait and see before-”

“You’re close with this girl, Hayley?”

“Yeah, we’re dating.”

“Dude, I’ve known you forever.  I’d know if you liked this girl, and I can tell right now that you do.  But yesterday…no, you didn’t like her.  You never mentioned her, you didn’t even know her.”

He believed me because of how unbelievable any other possibility would’ve been.

David believed me.

And then the next day, he didn’t remember a thing.  I could’ve gotten him to believe me again, I could’ve done it every day to have my friend back, but it was too painful.  There was nothing in it for him, as there was nothing he could do.  He’d feel bad for us, then the day would end, and I would feel bad that I lost my friend again.  Sadness followed by pain, over and over.  It was easier to just leave him obliviously happy.

Nothing like that would ever work with Principal Groves, though.  He didn’t know me.  I was just some kid that went to his school.  David believed me because of a preexisting relationship, which I could never have with Principal Groves.  Anything we tried with him would be incredibly difficult, but we had to give it a shot.  There was nothing else to go on, and this was the first real hope we’d had in ages.

“We could try with the announcements,” Hay said, shrugging.

“He’d accuse us of hacking or something, just like Mrs. Chen did.”

“So we don’t even try?”

“No, we try.  We just use a different approach.”

*     *     *

Principal Groves was an intimidating man.  He was tall, burly, and seemed to almost never smile.  Approaching him in a friendly manner would’ve been difficult even if I hadn’t long ago forsaken my social skills.

Yet, there we sat, waiting in the secretary’s office to see him instead of sitting in homeroom.  It wouldn’t be easy, but if he would hear us out, I had an idea that would at least give us a chance.

The door swung open, and he walked out, at first staring at Hay, then at me.  His eyes locked onto mine, like he was annoyed to see me, but he ushered us into his office anyway.

“Come in.  Brendon and Hayley, is it?”

“Yes sir.  Thank you.”

It should’ve been strange being so polite to someone that we’d had a particularly bad confrontation with just a handful of iterations ago.  But it wasn’t.

“This must be pretty important if you’re here instead of in homeroom.  Do you have permission from your teacher?”

“There wasn’t time, sir.”

“I see.  Well, what seems to be the problem?”

“We want to tell you about a situation we’re in.  A situation we’ve been in, actually, for a very long time.  It’s, um…unbelievable, I guess, but we need some information from you desperately enough to be seeking out your help like this.”

“Before Brendon continues, I just want to make sure your expectations for this situation are set appropriately, sir.  Whatever you think this could be about, I can promise you, it’s not about that.  This is about something that will probably make you angry.  You’ll want to tell us to stop kidding around and get back to class, but none of this is a joke.  We are desperate, and we need your help, so please, hear us out.”

Hay made a face I’d seen her make before.  Her eyes were sad.  Her lips quivered just enough to notice.  But unlike the last few times I’d seen her make this face, I could tell that this time, it was for real.  She was pleading with every ounce of her being.

“This sounds serious,” Principal Groves said.

“It’s serious,” I said.  “But it’s going to sound like we’re messing with you.  I don’t know any better way to set it up than that, or than what Hay already told you.”

“Okay, well, I can’t make any promises other than that I’ll hear you out.”  He leaned back in his chair.

I sighed and cleared my throat.  “To you, today is August 28th, 2018, and yesterday was August 27th, 2018.  But…”  I hated this part.  It was so ridiculous, so unbelievable.  He’d kick us out immediately.  “…to us, every day for the past 40-something years has been August 28th, 2018.  We’ve relived this day over and over and over.  It’s been-”

“Around 16,865 times,” Hay interrupted.  “Just over 46 years.”

Principal Groves narrowed his eyes at me, but I continued before he could get a word in edgewise.

“We are the only two people that retain our memories.  Every night at midnight, everything resets.  Everyone else loses their memory, and if we’re awake, we black out until our alarms go off in the morning.”  He didn’t look impressed, but he didn’t look as angry as I thought he would.  “I know it sounds entirely unbelievable, but to be honest, we don’t really need you to believe that we’re telling the truth about that.  At least, not now.  What we do need from you, though, is information.”

“We’ve watched this morning announcement broadcast countless times.”  Hay pointed at the muted TV hanging on the wall to our left.  “Up until a few iterations ago, the broadcast said, ‘I will be reading the morning announcements today due to yesterday’s events.’  But a few days ago, it changed, and you added the word ‘unfortunate’ to the sentence.”

There was no way he believed us, judging from the look on his face.  Yet, he seemed…interested?  Maybe he thought this was some elaborate prank to get out of an assignment or something and he just wanted to see where it went, but whatever the case, we kept explaining.

“We confronted you shortly after, and you told us that the announcements were recorded yesterday evening.  So, to you, that would be the evening of August 27th.”

“To us, that is huge, because we only relive August 28th, but if the video changed, then something changed from August 27th, and that could be a clue for us to find out how to end this nightmare we’ve been stuck in.”

“So, we’d like to ask you some questions about the evening of August 27th, if you don’t mind.”

We looked at him, and he looked back at me, then at Hay.  He leaned forward, put his elbows on his desk, then crossed his arms.  “Look, kids, clearly I can’t believe a story like that, but I’m oddly impressed by the gumption that drove you in here to concoct this tale.  Did someone put you up to this?”

“You don’t have to believe us, sir.  We just need to know the circumstances surrounding your recording of that video.”

“I’d love to keep entertaining this little story, but really, I’m busy, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to send you back to class.”

Hay nodded.  “Yeah, we knew you were going to say that.  See, this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation.”

The principal arched an eyebrow.

“It’s actually the fourth time we’ve made this appeal to you.  We knew you’d never give us the time of day after hearing such a strange story, so the first time we talked to you about this, we asked you for something that would make you believe us, 100%, without fail.  Something we could observe on this day, if we really were repeating it, and then tell you to make you believe us.”

“And that’s exactly what we did.”

Principal Groves chuckled a bit.  “You kids must get amazing scores in your creative writing courses, but listen, really, I have to-”

“You’re expecting a call from your wife.  She went to the doctor on August 27th, and she’s expecting some test results.”

Groves frowned at me.  “How did you find that out?”

“We stood outside of your office and listened to the call.  You really shouldn’t put your personal calls on speakerphone, but I guess it’s lucky for us that you do.”

“The call hasn’t happened yet, how could you…”  He trailed off.  “Okay, well, even if you know that I’m expecting that call, it doesn’t really mean anything.”

“She’s pregnant,” Hay said flatly.

He cocked his head to the side.  “What?”

“Your wife is pregnant.”

Now, Groves was getting annoyed.  “I’m glad you two think this is some kind of game, but I’m done with it. Get out of here before I get mad enough to suspend you.”

“It doesn’t matter if you suspend us.  When we wake up tomorrow, you won’t remember.”

He stared at me incredulously, like the words I’d uttered were sacrilege.

Hay groaned.  “Brendon, be nice.”

“Ah, sorry Principal Groves.”

“That’s not going to get you off the hook here,” he said.

“I know you think what we just told you isn’t true, but there’s no way we could know, right?”

“Kid, my wife is 46 years old.  There’s no way she’s pregnant.”

“Which is incredibly convenient to us,” I said.  “Because when she calls and tells you that she is pregnant, you’ll believe us, and when that happens, we’ll be outside your door again, waiting to talk.”

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 anxiety within me.  The weird thing, though, is I liked the feeling.  Being nervous was a normal part of life.  Normalcy was something I was willing to 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 the 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 ridiculously 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 iteration would be shot and we’d have to try again next iteration.

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 unusual 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 one of the desk drawers, then walked over to a small locker behind the 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, 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.  For some reason that I couldn’t pinpoint, that type of stuff came naturally to me.  It wasn’t much – I think the Internet 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 thumb drive, 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 the 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 thumb drives.  This one had an application called mimikatz on it, which I’d watched videos on but only knew how to use in theory.

Breaking into a computer that I had physical access to, like the lab computer, was one thing, but breaking into a remote computer that used a domain for authentication was an entirely different thing.  I didn’t have a way to test it at home, so as soon as mimikatz loaded, I was basically winging it.

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.  Some of it was weirdly familiar, like maybe I’d read about it once, but either way, progress was slow.  Dealing with this stuff might’ve come naturally to me, but it was still quite a difficult thing to pull off.

“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 they met mine.  “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.  Man, 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 were ablaze 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 stayed at or around 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 in my head, I’d nicknamed 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, you probably don’t want to rely on me for coming up with a creative nickname for you.

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, then turned and began walking toward the door we were standing next to.

“Look, 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 rail-thin 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.  She was taking too long, so I put my hand on her hip and pushed.  She finally popped completely in, so I closed the door and rushed over to the other tall locker.

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 I fit in a bit easier since I didn’t have female hips to worry about.  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 Deskie’s footsteps clapped on the linoleum floor 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, 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 made 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, then 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 of 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?”

Bookie had seen me.  There was 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 quick on her feet.

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.  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 the alarm off.  What a fine start to the day.

My phone buzzed shortly after landing on the floor.  I picked it up almost mindlessly and stared at the screen.

“Morning sunshine.”

We hadn’t been to school in around six or seven iterations, I think.

“Morning.  School or no?”

“Up to you.”

“I guess we can go today.”

I sighed and 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 told 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 through the front doors.  Right on time.

Mrs. Chen stood at the front of the room as usual, shooting us a quick glance as we stoically took our seats.  The 7:45 tardy bell rang right on cue, and Mrs. Chen began taking attendance.  Shockingly, no one was tardy or absent, 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 death 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 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 to channel that anger, so it just made me sad.  And it drove me closer to breaking.  Lately, it seemed that things like this would stack one on top of the other.  A couple weeks of iterations would pass, and something that didn’t bother me before would slowly start to bother me.  I was running out of options on what to do about it.

I instinctively stood up without any warning.

“Hey, are you-” Hay started.

“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 one of us 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.

It was yet another morning that I felt like I was going to break.  These little things setting me off was dangerous.  I’d have to stay home for a month’s worth of iterations to fix this, maybe even two.  A week wasn’t nearly enough, clearly.  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 as gently as I could, in spite of my mental state, and rushed to the door.

“I will be reading the 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!”

“I will be reading the 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 line that Groves repeated every morning was referring to the fact 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.

The wreck, however, wasn’t my concern at that particular moment.

“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.”

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 displaying 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 do you think you’re doing busting into my office like this?” he demanded in return.  Groves was obviously angry, but the confusion that was mixed in seemed to be tempering what would otherwise probably be furor.

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

“Yesterday evening.”  He paused, looking almost shocked that he’d answered me.  “Now can you please tell me what this is all about?”

“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, I hit the jackpot.  The third collection of stapled papers in the pile were his notes.  They were messy, but they were what I needed: his script for the morning announcements, line by line.  I’d always figured he had one, but it had never been worth looking into before that exact moment.

Right there at the top of the page were the words I was looking for: “I will be reading the 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 couldn’t remember for sure, but it was kind of weird to think about if true; two firsts in one day was far beyond unusual.

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.  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.

“The motel” wasn’t code for anything.  It was literally just some locally owned motel.  A little nicer than some, but still a motel.  I couldn’t remember why we were drawn to that particular motel of three that would let 18-year-olds check in, but it wasn’t like it mattered.  We’d used it on a handful of other occasions that we just couldn’t be home, as much as we hated to worry our parents.

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; the very bills 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.

Much to the surprise of neither of us, we got room 105.  It didn’t matter what time of day, it was like they saved room 105 just for us.  I suppose it wasn’t a huge shock that they didn’t have a lot of customers that day.  Not that there was anything wrong with room 105.  Actually, it was close to the vending machines, and we didn’t have to climb up the stairs to the second floor, so it was pretty convenient that we always got it.

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

“How the heck 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 finding and taking 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 spent 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 iterations began or after.  I knew that Hay had just moved to town – not because I remembered it, but because she did.  Before August 28th started repeating, we didn’t know each other, but she was apparently in my class. I knew for certain that on iteration number two, we figured out that it was only the two of us that retained our memories iteration to iteration.  It was within the first week that we started calling them “iterations” rather than “repetitions,” but I couldn’t remember why.

I also knew that it took about half a year’s worth of iterations 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 our tragedy sometimes to keep sane.

Other than important things like that, it was very difficult 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 during the day was wiped out of existence.

If events were unique enough, which was rare, they usually stuck better.  Some didn’t involve Hay, but most did.  For those, I could usually at least put a descriptor on them.  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 that descriptive.  But anyway, perhaps it’s best to say that if it was something about Hay, I’d probably remember.  If it was something I did with Hay, well, those were the tricky ones.

The point I’m trying to make is that our memories are patchworks of events 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 that I’ve always known, like their birthdays and favorite meals, but I have no idea what happened on August 27th, or August 26th, or really any other recent date leading up to the 28th.

What’s perhaps even wilder is that when we tried to jog our memories and figure out what happened on the 27th by looking on social media and various news sites, we found that posts and news stories from today were the only ones that existed.  On Twitter, when you reached 12:00AM in your timeline and kept going back, it just started all over again from August 28th at 11:59PM.  All news articles on mainstream news sites were from the 28th.  Sections containing yesterday’s headlines were either blank or repeats of headlines from the 28th.

Really, my only memory of the day before this all began was that it was just another mundane school day.  Hay remembered it the same way, but honestly, neither of us were sure that we weren’t misremembering.  We could 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 only by rote memorization.  Any memories of less importance that we didn’t at least occasionally recall were doomed to get lost in the ether.

The frustrating thing about trying to remember August 27th was that we didn’t know if there was even anything important about it.  The one thing we did have was time, so we tried for many 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 had gradually become very concise.  We used to make more 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 like ours, those societal norms just sort of faded into the background.

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 no consequences to skipping school, cursing at a teacher, stealing a car, burning a pile of money.  Absolutely none of it mattered as soon as the next iteration came.  In one iteration, 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 stupid 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 my senses.  There were iterations where it wasn’t easy to hold back from raging at people all day long.  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, which would’ve been true with or without the iterations, 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 Hay 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 in comparison to doing nothing at all.  I couldn’t really explain why, though I had my 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 being in a class full of people is lonely, but it’s absolutely and horrifyingly undeniable to me.  Imagine playing 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.  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 and started playing the puzzle game.  Now, you might imagine the other students 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.  In that case, you’d be just as surprised as we were the first time she did it.  It drew 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), and like clockwork, Marty reentered the room, looking a bit relieving.  A couple of kids got in trouble for having their phones out, as usual, but Hayley never did, and no one 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 differently, 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 my mind start to activate – the part that gnawed at every thought that kept me sane.  Luckily, we’d learned to notice the signs, and it was a slow creep that we could kind of 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 innocuous, but we’d both had bouts of…well, I don’t know what to call it.  Tantrums bordering insanity?  Releasing bottled up frustration?  Whatever descriptors you wanted to give it, the symptoms were the same:  hysterical crying, probably some screaming, pounding our fists into a beanbag chair.  Occasionally we’d lash out at others, but never one another.  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 compounded and compounded until it was unbearable.  I shuddered to think of living in this world alone.  If I didn’t have Hay, I don’t know what I’d have done.

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 had a weird schedule that meant she usually ended up home pretty early, but she was locked away in her office doing work.  Either way, 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 before it breaks us?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I muttered.

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

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

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

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

I laughed, but there was no joy in it.  It was the only 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.  “We’ll die in this screwed up world, and no one will even know what we’ve been through.”

“I know.”  We’d talked about it many times, and that was the conclusion we always came to.

“One way or another, we’ll die here.”

“I know.”

It was times like these that latching desperately onto hope seemed so futile.

June 30

1 – Repeat

I slammed my hand into my phone, groggily trying to silence the obnoxious alarm that was ringing in my ear.  My mornings were a continuous loop of dreaming about smashing my phone to bits, but not actually doing anything other than lying there, glad that I could at least make it shut up.  The first two or three hundred times this had happened, I schemed up ways to turn the alarm off, but I’d long since given up.  I still thought about it often, but it seemed like I was doomed to wake up at 7AM for all of eternity.

After I spent a few moments of staring at the ceiling, my phone buzzed with a notification.  My hatred for the device’s very existence immediately ceased.

“You up?”

“Yeah.  Going to school today?”

“Unless you have a better idea.”

“I don’t.  See you there.”

Hayley was my only real friend.  I had other people I called friends, but it was an act.  Every time I talked to them, I broke out the same tired lines that they expected.  I pretended nothing was wrong – like I was the same old Brendon they’d always known.

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 about school, and there were days I didn’t.  A completed homework assignment was in my bag, just like every morning.  I knew what it was because it was always the same, but I couldn’t 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, a bit in my brain flipped, and going to school became 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 five-minute casual drive.

I took my usual spot in the student parking lot, then leaned against the trunk of my car to wait the normal 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 always leaves the room ten minutes after class starts and comes back 15 minutes later.

“Oh, that puzzle game again?”

Hay had done this before, but it had been a while.  Marty would leave class, she would pull out her laptop and start a new game.  Her objective was to progress as far as she could before Marty returned.  Having that particular game already on the laptop was a blessing and a curse.  The game consisted of solving various puzzles in a 3D space, 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.  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 do a 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 and 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 then tell us about Hawaii, how wonderful it was, and how she’s still floating even though she’s back to reality.

In short, her mood was as good as it would ever 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, which was, 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 weighs 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 the morning announcements today due to yesterday’s events.”  He shuffled some papers on the desk in front of him, then continued in his usual overly-rehearsed 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 her 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 usually never made anything more complicated than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so when she grew tired of that, she’d try the cafeteria lunch for a while.  She’d gone back and forth like that for as long as I could remember, and 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.”

“They’re tenders, not nuggets.”

“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.  It was Mrs. Chen and her husband standing atop a cliff, the backdrop painted sky-blue, slowly melting into ocean.

“Mrs. Chen, he’s so handsome!” Hay whispered mockingly, just loud enough for only me to hear.

“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 everyone else, but my intuition said Mrs. Chen still related to the students because she still could easily look back on her high school days.

The presentation continued with a few more cliff side 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, 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, and like 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 depended 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 shut-eye.

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

I jolted awake as the bell for second period crashed and clanged in my ears.

“Whoa,” I muttered.

“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.  See ya.”

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 me.  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 at one point, 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 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 possibly 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.”