There Are Tiny Cities That Live Under My Fingernails.

There are tiny cities that live under my fingernails.

Dim lights twinkling with moth eyes as I nibble at the grown-out edges.

But under my toes are only the broken pieces of street, potholes, revealing brick underneath, walled off passages to hidden chambers. Where music once played.

But now just worn brick just inches under the city, black and rough skin, black fingers aged and calloused with labor, hard work abrasive continuity to hard lives. The surface hopeful children’s knees will be scraped on, absorbing tears too new to be ashamed of themselves.

Black veins down hilly legs, dipping into the sea. Too closed off in slumber to awaken for the tide. Passive and immobile. Tread upon. Speckled with freckles of gum and black puddles of poison.

But there are tiny cities that live under my fingernails.

And when I hold them to my ears I can hear music. I can hear angry voices demanding beauty, demanding someone to care about them and to be proud of them. The sounds of scissors turning drapes into tu-tus, the lashing of coat racks and expensive oak dining room furniture into air pyrate ships, dropping down on ropes to steal apples and chickens.

The quiet reverence at dawn, passing a bottle of tequila around the circle of mottled and smudged faces slowly turning a smoldering pumpkin orange, cuddles with blankets on the dirt.

The voices in those cities have memorized pyrate songs but changed all the words to match 80′s pop music. Like missing the rains down in africa and girls just wanting to have fun, sung by bearded men in rabbit fur coats.

Each night is a victory and a funeral and an orgy.

Each voice a tug on a coattail, still pure enough to long and love and lust and pine. Each glance a sad puppy waiting at the door for the best days still to come.

When I hold my fingernails to my ears the voices shout, “Do it! Do it!” urging me to weave into traffic and pick flowers for strangers. To paint my nails silver and red and play songs on the backs of copper kettles to the crows and moon.

And when I sit huddled I hear them.

Until I reach out. And the tiny voices get quiet again.

Until I grow huddled.

Luna Yuna

Luna Yuna opens her small lace pouch and sprinkles seeds into her hand. She spreads them in her palm with her pinky inspecting each, smooth opalescent skin with tiny quartered ridges.

She leans over a patch of black soil she has prepared. Black soil to black night. In a clearing. Poking a single hole for each seed in a row with her finger. Dropping one in and then covering it with soil like a blanket. A motherly love.

She waits for a break in the clouds. A bright moon’s glow painting the world a soft and luminous blue. The reeds and leaves a magnificent complexity of thin blue lines.

She sits. Crosslegged. Arms out like a conductor. And begins to sing. A soft and earthy voice. A joyful song. Singing to the sleeping children until the sparkling veins of light start to form in the earth. Connecting each mound bed in a spider web of lines like drawings of lightening. And then fragile threads of sparkling light lifting up into the air like trailing moths. Moving in playful trajectories set to motion by her voice. Up and up until they reach the moon above.

And then light like life blood flooding down, seeping into the humble garden. Dripping. And then gone. Just the black earth and silence.

But Luna Yuna waits. A broad smile and confident patience.

Until the earth wiggles. Grains trickling. Moving aside. The fresh bright eyes of new life, squinting. Tiny leaves uncurling. Stalks pushing up. Looking back and forth at their brothers and sisters.

Yuna clears her voice. Arms out. And the new born plants stand at attention. She sings a note and the plants repeat it. And then another and they do the same. They shift excitedly, shivering with anticipation. Yuna’s teeth bright, a wide and proud smile. Her arms out and hands loose, she starts to direct and the plants sing. An ancient lullaby. Harmonized in the soft voices of children.

Glowing strands of light flow out, surrounds Yuna. Touching her face and playfully interweaving with her curly black hair and holding out the strands. Weaving across her body in a white dress of light. And she laughs with delight.

The song drifts into the night sky. Into the east until the peaks and lines of horizon become slowly visible, the black of night dark blue, the outlines of dim clouds. Ever slowly brighter.

Yuna stands, her joyful new children singing as best they can.

“Be well my children, I will see you soon,” she says, lifting into the sky and once again becoming one with the moon.

Eleven Seconds.

“Eleven seconds,” she says, face down to the dusty asphalt below the bridge. A parking lot. The chuckle of Mexican construction workers eating their lunch on a truck bed. “It takes exactly eleven seconds for a rock to hit the ground from here.”

The had come to visit the troll under the I-99 bridge and wandered up to the pedestrian walk, a slow meander by the murderous swoosh of rush hour traffic. He knew that she had lived a few blocks away when she lived here, so many years ago.

“This is such an unceremonious place to die,” he says. “You only die once. Why waste it?”

“What’s it matter? It would do the trick.”

She leans with a deep look, a cigarette perched casually in her tan fingers. Reflecting. This new posture of strength. He could only imagine her here before. Alone. Imagine how she stood. Facing over the edge. This does not make him sad because she is here with him now. She is a new person. Remembering ghosts.

He thinks to toss a pebble over the side but he doesn’t. Leaves it perched on the round and rusted railing.

* * * *

They hike to Freemont and get gelato and explore the tiny metal trinkets embedded in the patio tile work and she dangles from the fingers of the Lenin statue looming over the square. He kisses her. And they both ignore the gloom of her departure in the morning. Back to New Orleans.

* * * *

The blue glow of computer screen. The slow blink of the cursor in the cheap chat window. The pause of silence.

“I can’t,” she types. “I’m sorry.”

Another silence.

“OK,” he types.

The silence settling.

“I’m sorry,” she types.

And then nothing but the silence.

Real tears to fake words.

Patience.

I’m pretty impatient with life. Rushing it. Pushing just a little too hard for something it had already decided to do with me but turning it back into a no. Because I have too little patience for small talk and small times. Skipping over the silences like a stone on water. A swelling of ideas and words and connections all out real fast with lingering fingers and intense looks. Hungry for more. For new things to rush in and fill up the kettles and cupboards. The good parts that people want to read about. Pleasure or pain as long as it’s nourishing.

Forgetting too often that magic things can be slow. The moments between planting a seed and seeing the first shoot pushing the earth aside, squinting eyes for the sun. Waiting for fruit to turn into wine, the tiny bubbles through a vodka air trap. Such deliberate and motherly care for tiny moments. A prideful sort of encouragement.

I wonder how many tiny things I’ve destroyed lumbering along with shiny eyes and outstretched hands towards some far off light. Drunken anger balled up and hurting. Mourning the imaginary. With closed eyes.

Spark. A flash. From some direction I was not expecting. Silent and muffled blooms of heat lighting deep into a quiet night.

“I didn’t see it,” she says.

And we wait, my finger pointing to where it was. She doesn’t believe me. Silence for too long. And she looks back, the smooth curves of her face painted chemical orange and buddha blue from the moon and incandescence reflecting off the water, playfully doubting eyes. And a flash behind her.

“There!” I say still pointing.

And she pivots too late, staring into the black sky and then cuddles back into me, head on chest, closing her eyes, a warm spot in the cool breeze off the river. It was enough for her. But my gaze remained fixed. Waiting. And waiting. Missing those small moments before she falls asleep. Her body . . . slowly . . . becoming . . . limp.

Flash. But there’s no one to share it with.

Chapter 10 – Bill and his wife.

Bill’s Subaru Outback crackles down hilly suburban streets. Immaculate landscaping, the tufts and lulls of cleverly mismatched flowers and grasses. Carefully pruned trees taking turns blooming throughout the season. He turns wide into the thin driveway dug into the hillside yard. Lets the radio song finish before he turns off the car. Gathers himself with a sigh.

Tugs on a smile and through the heavy oak door. Keys on the table. The patter of six year old feet and a leap and tackle.

“Hey Buddy,” kissing the side of his head, already in his PJs even though it was still light outside. Custom fabric from scanned drawings. A Swedish site online.

Trystan squirms and mocks kung fu moves making action battle sounds. Bill swings him around wildly, the boy screaming but when he gets tickled he submits immediately and fights free running for the kitchen.

“Hey hon,” Bill says. She’s making dinner. They take turns. Tonight it’s grilled chicken breast and bagged salad. One of three meals she knows how to cook.

She makes a “Oh Hey” sound and offers a one arm hug and cheek kiss, her mouth full, then goes back to cooking. Trystan tugging to the fridge.

“Wow,” Bill exaggerates, sitting Indian style with Tryst climbing into his lap, interweaving arms. A fresh drawing magnetted up over the other ones.

Trystan gestures and sound effects his way through an elaborate plot. “And then the laser cats dig up out of their tunnels and . . . phew phew . . . ”

“What are these?” Bill asks leading the story on.

“Bill knows if the plates aren’t on the table by the time the food’s done she’ll do it and be silently pissed for feeling like a house wife.

“Do you want to help me set the table, Tryst?”

He thinks for a minute deciding if it’s work or fun and then nods.

She serves out of the pan and passes him the lettuce bag after she’s made her salad. He makes a small salad for Trystan even though he never eats it.

“There’s yucky stuff on mine,” Trystan says poking at the chicken breast with his fork.

“It’s cilantro,” she says with a yummy face taking a bite. But Trystan picks every tiny piece off and Bill has to cut it into bites to get him to eat it.

They trade work stories.

Then watch kid friendly TV until Trystan starts getting weary eyed.

“Ok, kiddo, let’s hit the sack.” Trystan holding his arms up to be carried and all three of them head up stairs to tuck him in.

She keeps checking her watch, but they have time. Tryst was like clockwork. He clutches his stuffed armadillo and wriggles into the sheets and pillows smiling. They quietly close the door.

She goes straight to changing her clothes while Bill sets the laptop up in the bedroom. Launching a program and angling the webcam. She comes back out of the bathroom wearing a lace nighty. Sliding on lace gloves and dropping a pile of assorted trinkets on the dresser for him. Black gloves and little adhesive metal discs. Checks her watch again.

They’re not really talking, just going about their getting ready routine. Bill hangs his jacket on a hanger. Unbuttons his striped blue button down, leaving his black T-shirt on, taking off his shoes. Then places a metal disc at his elbow and wrist, behind each knee and behind each thigh.

From a box under the bed, sleek black case with foam cut outs, two pairs of glasses, clear lenses, shiny silver frames, a small pair for her and a slightly more masculine pair for him. She locks the door and turns off the lights, the room dimly lit from a crack in the bathroom door.

They put on their glasses, a light blue and pink glow from the screens. Slightly obscuring their eyes and smudging a soft glow on the walls and on each other’s skin. they both make adjustments, finger motions in the air. he can’t see it but she’s scrolling through a series of bodies. Each time she clicks the “next” scroll his body changes in a flick. A bronze skin Brazilian boy with Abercrombie and Fitch muscles. A thick muscled white man with aggressive tattoos and a hairy chest. A dainty Johnny Depp look alike. A shaven headed black model with radiant smile and shiny skin. One after another. Settling on a trim and athletic boy that looked unsettlingly similar to a man she worked with. That she often had to take business trips with.

Bill leaves her avatar looking the same. A realistic 3D scan of her body. He’s tweaked her hair to be a little more red and selects his favorite outfit, a simple short black slip. Their hands are glowing, perfectly modeled and nimble, from the gloves.

She checks her watch. She’s anxious. Then the dialog box. “RavenWatchingYou wants to join your session. Allow?” They both motion with their fingers. Clicking Yes. Then a girl appearing on the bed. A reserved smirk. They both pivot to surround her.

“Eager,” she says. Licking her lips. Calm. Leaning back onto the bed, one foot draped over on the floor like she was really sitting there.

They both move in close, everyone looking into each other’s eyes. The spectral girl’s skin luminous. Bill gently strokes his fingers to her face, she closes her eyes like she can feel the touch. Bill’s wife with her hand on her own chest, circling her nipple.

His hand follows Raven’s to the seam in her robe, gently grasping the virtual fabric and peeling it open to expose small but perky breasts. He traces his fingers over one of them and his wife the other, slow light fingers as Raven watches with a turned on face like she could feel it, reaching her fingers out to touch the both of them, a flat palm on Bill’s chest.

Raven leans in, her incandescent face lighting up the other woman’s face, lips tracing lips, eye to eye, fingers exploring ghostly surfaces. Bill’s wife leans down with outstretched tongue tracing the spectral outline of nipple as Raven watches.

Bill slips the robe off of Raven’s shoulder, slipping her arm out exposing her thin but curvy form, sitting on her heels, the almost too perfect hips and ass, the thin ripple of ribs, powder perfect skin.

Raven leads his hands to his wife and she eagerly unhooks her top and drops it, pressing Bill’s face to her chest, watching Raven watch. Raven licks her lips again, staring like she’s watching a movie, touching herself. Bill’s wife taking off his T-shirt and then he fumbles off his pants and Bill’s wife her thin underwear exposing her shaved smooth skin.

Raven makes a pushing motion and Bill’s wife falls back onto the bed, submissive, arms up and legs spread wide. Raven straddles her slowly tracing her body with a fingertip slowly working down her body, Bill’s wife holding back little thrusts, a hum of sex noises coming out of her.

Bill leans back and watches, his own erection bright and glowing, as Raven slides down between her legs, stroking Bill’s wife’s thighs, her face lighting up her sex, tracing the edges and folds with her tongue, Bills’ wife touching with fingers and spreading herself open, her other hand coming from behind touching herself. She wriggles as she watches Raven slowly work her tongue. Gradually using more of her own fingers, massaging her clit with a light touch, watching Raven work.

But Raven raises making hands for Bill’s wife to stop but she looks like she’s ready to cum, shaking her head but then stops with a hurry-hurry face.

Hands on Bill pressing his face down between his wife’s legs and he goes, sliding his tongue against her flushed and wet lips. Raven moves up straddling her face so she can watch, her ghostly pussy inches away from her, each amazing fold in perfect detail. Raven spreads herself open so Bill’s wife can see and she cranes her head up to watch, moaning already, heels hooked into Bill’s chest.

Raven leans back, fast probing strokes of her finger, then circles her clit and then back to the strokes, loosing balance a little but coming back so Bill’s wife can watch. Bill’s wife is sirening up to a climax and Raven rides it like a wave. Faster and faster until they both cum at the same time, each other’s sounds pushing the other over the edge, Raven letting out a string of obscenities and Oh-Gods and falling back overlapping the spot where Bill was still working on his wife, thrusting her hips up and sputtering to a stop.

Bill stands on his knees and his wife pounces onto him pressing his balls back and sucking in fast hard jerks but he pushes her back and turns her around taking her from behind, a hard grip on her hips and string of yes-yes’s from her face half buried in blankets.

Raven steps into the space where his wife is getting fucked, kneeling, face to face with him, so her pussy meets where his wife’s pussy is, an open mouth.

She’s whispering to him. “Fuck me. Oh. Fuck me. Uh. Come on. Fuck me. Make me feel it Bill. Fuck me. Oh god, Bill. Cum inside me. Cum inside me Bill. Come on. Fuck my pussy. Oh god Bill fuck my pussy. Make my pussy feel it, Bill.”

He jackhammers his wife and she muffles her screams in the blankets. Muffles that she’s saying the muscley boy at work’s name.

“Cum inside me Bill! Come on, baby, cum in my pussy!”

And he does, staring into Raven’s wild eyes as she leans back for him to fill her up. His face strains and bulges, a painful explosion in his head and a pounding heart.

Raven waits for him to finish and steps out of where his wife’s body is and he starts to look at his wife again. Pulling out and she collapses.

They both lay beside Raven as she masturbates again, her noises getting them both excited again. So they have sex again as Raven stands watching, turning her on as she masturbates, back and forth reciprocally a few times.

When they’re done, Bill’s wife goes to the bathroom and Bill and Raven lay on the bed together.

“You know the only reason I do this is so that i can fuck you. I don’t really like her,” Raven says.

“I though you liked her.”

“Not really. She’s kind of a controlling bitch, haven’t you noticed?”

“She’s not so bad. Her work makes her crazy.”

“I’m pretty sure she was saying some other guy’s name when you were fucking her.”

“No she wasn’t.”

“Tim. I think she said Tim. Doesn’t she like work with a Tim? Don’t they take trips together?”

“Yes, Tim. How do you know they take trips?”

“She talks about it. Why would she talk about it?” She hadn’t talked about it. Raven had seen a work pic of them together at a convention. Tim was a slightly pudgy regional manager in a cheap suit.

“I don’t think she wants to fuck Tim.”

“I’m just saying.”

“OK,” Bill says with a sideways face.

“You should come visit me. Find an excuse. That would be fun,” she says stroking his limp penis, watching it slowly grow and lengthen, getting stiff, staring into his eyes.

“That would be fun.”

She moves his hand down to her pussy, “Don’t you want to fuck me for real Bill? Watching you drives me crazy.”

Bill pounds out a quick one before his wife comes back and hides the cum.

“That’s probably not a good idea,” he says.

“Suit yourself,” she says casually playing with herself.

When the bathroom door clacks, opening, they separate, fixing themselves, like they were talking casually. Bill now using the bathroom and his wife leaning back on the bed. Raven straddling her.

“You know the only reason I do this is to fuck you. I don’t really like Bill.”

“Eh. He’s ok.”

“He’s kind of a pussy, don’t you think? I’ve seen bigger cocks on a dachshund.”

Bill’s wife laughs.

“And he’s totally trying to cheat on you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, don’t tell him I said anything, but he’s always trying to meet me in real life. Saying he can fake a business trip. I always say no, of course. But he’s relentless. I think he thinks I would run away with him. As if. I’m only interested in this sweet little pussy,” circling the lips of his wife’s sex between her open legs. “I wish that I could be with you for real.”

She waits for a long time to answer. “How would that make me any better than him?”

“It wouldn’t, but I’d finally get to taste you instead of . . . just . . imagining . . . it . . . ” kissing her sex.

When the door starts to open she gives a quick, “Give my regards.” Disappearing with a click.

Coming into the room, Bill says, “Where’s Raven?”

“She’s gone.”

“Oh.”

They dress for bed. Each take their side, facing away.

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

One of them sighs.

New Book – Chapter ??? – Saddest Chapter Ever

“Wake up, mommy.” The chipper and happy voice of a child. “Good morning, good morning!”

Long grey hair spread across the thin metal institutional style bed, thick white linens each marked with a black stamp. She can’t see him yet but he’s there every morning to greet her. 7am sharp. Her hands with skin as textured and fragile as ancient rice paper, a shiny translucence, she’d watch grow and slowly become the hands of an old person. But she didn’t feel as old as those hands looked. They felt so out of place.

“Mommy, mommy!” such an excited voice. It made her excited.

Those hands now, reaching for thick glasses. Slipping feet into white slippers. “Hold on, hold on,” smiling. She clips the clunky black plastic frames of the screens to her glasses, old technology over older out-of-style frames. A hum.

And the voice now with a body. Glittering blue fur with an electric glow, curling on her lap, nuzzling her. Huge Japanimae eyes with a dazzling sparkle. Like a hedgehog mixed with a chinchilla, the size of a cat, but an entire ball of fur, the only feature its eyes and nondescript mouth.

“Oh mommy, I love you sooooo much.”

“I love you too, Baby,” she says reaching down and petting its face and scratching its back as it rolls and wriggles, laughing.

“I miss you when you’re sleeping,” it says.

“Well I see you in my dreams my Baby.” And it smiles a joyful smile. “Momma needs her coffee, though.”

It leaps up and across the linoleum floor hopping into one of two chairs at the small wooden table. The room was small. A bed, a desk, a small table and a sink on one wall. A microwave and on top a hot pad and a coffee maker, all on top a rolling cabinet. This was her kitchen. With small bits nailed up, knitted green hot pads and an egg beater collection that would have seemed more at home in a country farm house kitchen.

She opens the cabinet, two white ceramic plates, two coffee cups, two saucers, two bowls and two plain glasses. Opens the top drawer for a spoon. Cheap cafeteria style utensils, two spoons, two forks, two butter knives, one plastic handled paring knife, a can opener and a dish towel.

“Mommy, mommy, what are we going to do today mommy?”

“Oh, I don’t know Baby, what would you like to do today?”

“Maybe . . . “ it says shyly, its shiny eyes looking down, thinking, “Maybe . . . um . . . you could reads me a story?” Those eyes opening big and hopeful.

“Of course Baby.”

Baby jumps and beams, unable to contain its excitement.

She starts her coffee. Folger’s Crystals. She had been drinking it her whole life. She brushes her long grey hair and scrubs her dentures with a toothbrush in the sink, goes to her closet, hanging only a few outfits and dresses. The whole time Baby following and waiting patiently. Returning to the table and pouring a cup.

Baby snuggles into her lap purring a deep purr, the morning light filtering down into her window, her view of brick and the alley below.

“You make me very happy, Baby.” She always felt a bit teary these days.

****

Later, she lets Baby pick a story, she only had a few books but Baby never seemed to mind. Sitting on the bed, Baby curls in her lap and she reads the words with inflection, pausing to watch Baby respond, its expressions following the story with amazement, with worry and with triumphant satisfaction.

“Again, again.” And she reads the story again.

After the story Baby patiently watches her make lunch. Canned tomato soup and saltine crackers that she softens in the soup.

“What’s your favorite food, mommy?” Baby asks, had asked many times, but she answers anyway, telling lavish stories of Morocco and Spain, the fresh food in New England, about Thailand and living in Phuket and buying foods at the market, about her mother and the foods she would eat as a child. Baby asking little questions and affirmations to keep the conversation going.

For dinner she microwaves a frozen meal. Drinks water from the tap and then washes the dishes. Dries them placing each in their spot. Baby watches her undress, fold back the blankets in her bed and snuggles up beside her pillow.

“Oh boy mommy, we’re going to go to sleep now.”

“Yes, Baby.”

A deep purr as it waits for her to climb into bed. She pets Baby one last time and unclips the viewscreens, plugging them into the wall charger. Takes off her glasses and takes out her dentures, slides into the creaking metal bed and falls asleep to Baby’s comfort and chirping sleeping sounds.

****

The next day Baby doesn’t wake her up like before. She slips on her glasses and eye piece and Baby is sitting slumped on the bed.

“Baby, my Baby, what’s wrong with you?”

It looks up with dreadfully sad eyes. A pleading sort of look, “30 days mommy. I expire in 30 days.”

She doesn’t quite understand, “What do you mean little Baby?”

“You have to call and fix your account or I’ll have to go away.”

“Don’t worry little Baby, you’re not going anywhere. I’ll call today.” But Baby doesn’t perk up. He’s still sad, walking slow. She gets her coffee started and digs in the closet, coming out with a PayLess shoe box stuffed with envelopes. She leans her head back using the bifocals in her glasses, carefully flipping through the papers filed there, occasionally pulling one out and replacing it until she finds a white envelope from [name of corp].

“Here we go.” She reads through the letter, “OK,” stands at the beige plastic phone mounted to the wall and calls the number.

“English . . . What? . . . No, English, “ then louder, “English.”

“206 . . .783 . . .0616.”

“Yes.”

“2184.”

She waits for a long time listening to the voice. “No . . . I don’t want the Gold Shield Plan . . . Hello? No. “ Then louder, “No.”

“I need help with my pet . . . “ Then to herself, “You don’t understand that?” Then to the phone loudly, “Virtual Buddy . . . good lord.”

The voice tells her they’re experiencing larger than usual call volume and thanks her for her patience. She perks each time the voice comes back on but it repeats the same message. After 15 minutes she stretches over to the coffee pot, the cord tight, snatching the pot with fingertips and stretches just as hard to put it back.

30 minutes. She wants to hang up but Baby is sporting the same worried face so she makes herself comfortable. 45 minutes. An hour. Finally an hour and ten minutes and the line clicks then rings.

“Hello. My pet told me to . . . oh . . . 206 . . . 783 . . . 0616 . . . 2184 . . . Yes I can wait . . . “ Another 5 minutes.

“Yes . . . Hello? . . . Yes. My pet told me . . . Yes . . . Virtual Buddy, that’s right . . . He said that he was going to expire in . . . What kind of change? Five dollars?”

“I’m on a fixed income. My son set this account up for me three years ago. No I’m sorry he’s passed on.”

“Even though he set up a lifetime account?”

“Ok . . . no . . . so . . . can I just pay the difference? I can mail you a check each month.”

“The whole thing? No, my son set up an account for me to pay it, it was all worked out. . . I can’t just pay the difference? 65 dollars? I can’t afford that.”

“30 days? I won’t have it then either. What happens to my son’s money? Who would know? Well what bank? Is there anything that you know?”

“I understand.” She hangs up.

“What did they say mommy?”

“They raised the price. I need to contact my son’s bank.”

He looks really sad. “You’re going to pay it, right mommy?”

“Of course, Baby.” Baby curls in her lap still sad as she spends the morning flipping through more shoe boxes and making calls. Nothing sounds positive.

****

“29 days, mommy.” More sad than before.

“I have to wait for the bank to call me back Baby. Don’t be sad.”

“I’ll have to go away.”

“You won’t go away.”

****

“19 days, mommy.” Sad.

It had become her wakeup call. Each morning. Baby no longer had interest in the stories. He moped around in a dire depression.

She spreads her collected change on the bed counting it. Returning it to the can. Ringing one hand with the other, then switching, staring at the brick outside the window.

A knock at the door. Her next door neighbor Sally was the only one who ever knocked.

“What’s wrong darling?” Sally sits beside her on a chair, holding her hand, in silence for a long time.”

“They’re going to take away Baby . . . “ She sputters out falling into sobbing tears. “They’re going to take my baby.”

Sally sits still in the chair, a compassionate face, “Is that your computer pet?”

She nods.

Sally doesn’t say anything. She though computer games were for children.

“Sally, I wouldn’t know what to do without Baby. What am I going to do?”

“I don’t know. What can you do?”

They sit in silence. Not hugging. And she cries.

“Can you take those things off?” Sally asks about the clunky clip on screens. But she doesn’t take them off.

****

“8 days, mommy.” Sad.

She sits in the sun, Baby curled in her lap like a child that was already dead. Staring at her with the biggest sad eyes. Her face feels puffy and dry from crying.

She takes off the clip on screens.

“What are you doing mo . . .”

She turns the knob off on the speaker on her desk before Baby could finish the sentence. Pulls the chair over to the phone with the letter folded on her lap and cries alone now. The first time since her son had set Baby up for her, knowing he would be leaving soon from cancer. His weekly visit the center to her week. She curls up to herself on the chair. Feeling like she had to pull the plug on her own son.

After a long silence she holds the paper back, reading the small text and dials.

“English . . . 206 . . . 783 . . . 0616 . . . Yes . . . 2184.”

“No . . . no . . . no . . . Virtual Buddy.”

The phone rings straight through this time surprisingly.

“Yes . . . I’m calling to cancel my Virtual Buddy subscription. No . . I can’t afford . . . “ She fights but it’s no use. She’s bawling. Deep hysterical sobs. Like she’s at a funeral. The voice on the other side keeps talking. Polished scripted speech eventually falling to “Are you ok”s and human comforts. But she just keeps sobbing. A high pitch, “No I’m fine” that’s barely intelligible. The voice seem patient.

“I need to cancel my Virtual Buddy account.”

“2184 . . . Yes” Still crying.

“It is? What does that mean?” She’s not crying. Desperate eyes. “Ad enabled?”

“So what does that mean? So I’ll get like TV ads? That’s not so bad. Oh I think I’ll notice but . . Yes . . So . . . How much does that cost? Free? But . . . well . . . This is such a blessing. Thank You.”

“2184. Yes . . . You have a beautiful day sir.”

Hangs up.

“Did you hear that Baby! It’s ok now! They fixed it!” She rushes to the speaker, turning it on.

Mid sentence, “ . . . ve you mommy. I love you mommy! You saved me! You saved me!” His excited voice, the first time in weeks.

“Yes Baby!” She clips the screens back on. Baby is darting around her. Hopping at her face with kisses. “Every thing is going to be ok for us.”

She’s crying again. But deep happy tears of joy. Baby does back flips.

“I’m so happy mommy.”

“I am too Baby. So am I.”

“Will you read me a story today mommy?” His sparkly wonder back immediately.

“Of course Baby. Any story you want.”

****

“Wake up, mommy.” His chipper voice. “Good morning, good morning!”

She wakes excited to hear.

“Mommy, mommy!”

She slips on her glasses, feet in slippers.

“Oh mommy, I love you soooo much.”

“I love you too Baby.”

She makes her coffee.

“Mommy, why do you always use Folger’s?”

“What? . . . Oh . . . that’s mommy’s coffee baby.”

“Oh . . . “

“Why?”

“No reason. Have you ever tried Sanka?”

“Well yes, but I only drink Folger’s.”

“Oh, ok.”

She makes her soup.

“What kind of soup is that mommy?”

“It’s tomato soup, Baby.”

“No, I mean what kiiiiind is it?”

“Oh,” she turns the can around, “it’s the store brand I guess, Quality Foods.”

Baby looks sad.

“What’s wrong Baby?”

“I wish that you would buy Campbell’s soup instead.”

“This brand is cheaper Baby. You know I don’t have much money.”

Baby looks sad.

“ . . . ok Baby. Next time I’ll get Campbell’s.”

A huge bright smile. “Thank you mommy, that would make me so happy!”

They read stories and Baby asks her questions.

Later Baby tells her about Silky Smooth slippers that are on sale at a department store.

She humors him like a child, “Why thanks you Baby, you are so considerate.”

And she falls asleep to his deep purrs.

****

“No Baby, it’s Folger’s. You’ve asked me every day for three weeks. I only drink Folger’s.”

“But maybe you could tryyyyyy Sanka. It might be great.”

“No, Baby,” she says flatly.

“It would make me happy . . .” Big pleading Japanimae eyes.

“No, Baby.”

“Pleeeeeeease?”

“No, Baby.”

“Maybe tomorrow?”

“No, Baby.”

She makes Campbell’s soup and uses Brawny paper towels in her Silky Smooth slippers. Washes her hands with Dial soap.

“Mommy, have you ever thought about investing in a mutual loan? The interest rates are getting really low.”

“No, Baby.”

“Jameson and Krenshaw has a great entry package. Should we give them a call?”

“No, Baby.”

“OK.”

“Do you want to read a story today,” she asks.

“Yes mommy, that sounds soooo fun.”

“Which story would you like? Any story you want.”

“I want to hear The Door Next Week by Allison Hedges.”

“ . . . but we don’t have that book Baby.”

“It’s new, it just came out.”

Happy pleading eyes.

She goes to her change can and pours out the change on the bed. Counting out nickels and pennies. Baby happily watches, excited.

“Do we have enough? Do we have enough?”

“I don’t know Baby. Maybe . . . “

“Let’s go find out, ok? Can we go to the store?”

She goes to the closet. Picks a dress and dresses, brushing her hair. A little sad. A little quiet.

“Are we going? Are we going?”

“Yes, Baby.”

“Yay!!” Baby does backflips.

Chapter 7 – New Book.

“I need an install at the market.”

“No, simple video, we won’t need sound.”

“It’s an outside job, very visible.”

“I’d prefer not, how long can we get on self contained?”

“Yeah I was hoping for a bit longer than that.”

“That sounds interesting.”

“and it still makes light just like a bulb?”

“Very cool.”

“I don’t remember seeing anything useful but I didn’t have it in mind.”

“Yeah, it’s close.”

“Department number 27 . . . Yes . . . Budget code 4123 . . . Yes . . . if it’s under 5k it doesn’t need approval . . . Executive sponsor is Ty . . . No . . . Secure, very secure, I want a private feed, just me . . . Are you doing the install?”

“I don’t know Antoine.”

“It doesn’t matter, just make it clear these guys are pros, they’re going to make you straight off.”

“Yeah they’re going to track the vans, the faces, everything.”

“I mean if you can. I don’t want to get your friend in trouble.”

“Like I said, everything under 5k doesn’t need approval.”

“OK, well ring me back before anything’s final.”

“As soon as possible. Can we do today?”

“10:07”

Ben pops his head in and I give the just-a-minute finger and a come-in wave.

“I’ll be here.” Hanging up the phone.

“What’s up Ben?” He has a printout and his thumb drive.

“So . . . it’s what I thought, but I wanted to make sure. It’s the freeware thing that showed up a couple months ago. CloaX0r. Completely illegal but it’s floating around. It got dropped on a Gopher server, do you remember those?”

Of course I remembered it. He waits for me to nod.

“Anyway, this thing’s a nightmare for cops. It basically hacks the GPS in your phone and transmits a false positive. But unlike the last one it picks a location in a black zone to prevent visual confirmation. It also assigns movement based on predictive speed, likely activity and transportation mode. It basically learns your habits and mimics them. “

“Nice.”

“And . . . There’s no way to tell the difference between it and any regular feed. The only way I could track it down was having a precise visual sighting.”

“Suck . . . guess there’s no way to just get the registration information.”

He rolls his eyes.

“Is that it? Is there any way to know who might have this?”

“The best we can do is reverse engineer it, add our own tracking code and redistribute it. Like as a V2. Cross reference new users to our database. But it would get hacked immediately. And that’s the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people. We’ll never know who has it.”

I tap my pen.

“So here’s a copy,” he hands me the flash drive. “It’s just source, it’s not compiled for your OS, but I put a compiler on there for you. Do you . . . “

I nod.

“Ok, so if anyone catches you with that you didn’t get it from me. Just delete it off the drive after you copy it. Here’s a printout to the “ReadMe” some guy made up. The interface is a little cryptic but there’s a few other uses for the predictive mechanism, it works independently, you can simultaneously track multiple targets and it just builds more and more detailed models. It helps if you set that up first and let it run for a few days. The longer it runs the smarter the cloak gets.”

“Thanks Ben, this is more than I ever hoped for. Your overachiever side never disappoints.”

“My pleasure.”

“Anything turn up on the door symbol?”

“No, there’s nothing active in the Endless Circles plot. I flagged it as a point of interest on all the old players. We’ll see what comes up.”

Chase pops his head in without knocking. “We’re doing Santorini’s for Baltimore. I’ve already sent Dave down to supervise the install. He’s couriering the new assets. I’ve asked Jake to alter the plotline to include my suggestions . . . Hi Ben.” He seems very pleased with himself.

I try to pull off a fuck you squint but have no idea if it worked. He shuts the door.

“That guy is such a dickhead,” Ben says.

“Tell me about it.”

“Can he do that? Jake doesn’t do Baltimore.” My office phone is ringing.

“Sorrow . . . I . . . I know Jake . . . Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it . . . No I’ll talk to Tib . . . Just tell him I told you not to . . . Yeah . . . Send him back to me.” I hang up as Ben and I exchange now-what looks. “This isn’t going to end well.”

“I swear to god if they start making me work tampon ads into my shit I’ll be out of here.”

I tap my pen. The fuck off speech is already writing itself in my head. This beautiful fury. I’ve learned to give myself at least a few hours if not a full day to cool off. I could never keep my mouth shut even with the best intentions.

I schedule a meeting with Jake and Tib. Another with Chase in his office for the morning.

****

The familiar pinching smell of rubbing alcohol, the faint memory of a man’s cologne, the sticky peel of car tires on wet pavement, the suffocating glow of a blinking road sign cinched at the neck under a white kitchen garbage bag and left at the roadside. I see each moment in strobe stills of off color florescent desolation, blue and white rivers of traffic under the pedestrian bridge, the chaotic and beautiful sparkles of sidewalk glitter and broken glass and black puddles, a brief moment of quiet in the twisting white corrugated steel construction tunnel, the clomp of my shoes on the plywood. I stop for a moment, one eye closed to frame it. I construct fake moments out of real ones. Composing.

I form words to describe it, scanning the far off screams of a woman to decide if it’s joy or terror, looking at the passing eyes of a gay couple and their heavy female companion, searching for sadness or joy. Dozens of thoughts, one on top of the other, all at the same time.

The peel of rubber on the wet pavement. The rich green blues smear across the blacktop like powdery pastel marker, the deep and immediate reds.

I keep the gaze of a blond looking out of a window bar spot in the Bauhaus coffee shop all the way down the sidewalk and slip inside to order a bottle of orange juice, wipe the fog from my glasses with my shirt. The barrista counts the small pile of nickel tips, metal scraping the counter, as I wait, for her to smile and acknowledge me. People sitting all down the stairs and in small nooks meant for plants and garbage cans. The upstairs is full, but I notice a couple packing their things and wait to snatch their small slate top table tucked in the corner. My mind makes faces out of the streaked and spotted fogged up windows overlooking the city, goblins to sad monsters to dark agents and flaming ghost skulls of swamp spirits, a phoenix and the spotted back and hips of a sexy silhouette, beak nosed nymphs and pouncing jungle creatures, fast, one after the other, this hidden world of worlds. This sad little palm tree outside. It makes me miss more tropical and exotic far off places.

Ironically the moody echoes of “Love will tear us apart, again. . . ” trickle up from the boisterous cafe, painting such multi-layered paintings of memories, rich and luscious and longing, melting time for a moment into this non linear existence. This moment that was in fact five moments all at the same time, simultaneously. I linger without words for a minute, enjoying it, until the music changes to a hip latin fusion that seemed more in line than the coincidental namesake band.

I open my juice, it’s sweet like I like it, and imagine the comfort of clove cigarettes, drink half the bottle in one drink, as the clack clack clack clack clack of the espresso pan gets cleaned, mixing with the music. Over and over. The chirp of girls. The malaise of meaningless stories. The cackle of fake laughs.

The man in front of me stretches back and pops his knuckles over his head, inches from my face and I glance up to read his laptop screen. The spell is broken and the room is full of sad lonely people again. My mind quickly analyses and categorizes each one. Clothes to hair to posture to hand placements, keys hanging on belts and headphones and body positioning. A quick calculation of weakness and disposition and motive. It’s involuntary.

I can see him come in through the long line edging out into the street, looking around a little lost, and I like watching him, looking for me, rain speckles twinkling on his glasses. The hip and judgemental crowds have made him shrink. But then he catches my eye from my balcony perch and a bright sparkle, his usual calm and self possessed posture returning, his big green and blue spotted eyes on his round face looking into me, like an electric connection.

He ascends in one fluid movement leaning in for a strong hug, the warmth of his face on my face. I wait for him to let go first and our eyes meet for a second too long and glances away a little shy. I clear my bag onto the floor and he squeezes into the rickety wooden chair.

“I’m sorry I missed you at the park. My work called and needed me immediately. I waited for a little . . . “

“I was late. Totally my fault.”

There’s a moment but it’s comfortable.

“Should I get some coffee?” he asks, glancing down to the enormous line.

“Oh, well, I just live a few blocks from here over on summit. If you feel comfortable coming over.”

“Of course, sure . . . It’s so nice to see you Sorrow.”

I can’t help but smile. His eyes have always sucked me in, electric shivers down my legs to my curling toes. I don’t answer, it would sound insincere.

We make chitchat about the bad parking. And I talk about not having a car anymore and I try to remember the last time we had to fill time with chitchat.

The walk home is ordinary, crossing half way between Pine and Olive to avoid both the drunks outside the corner market and the drama outside the low income apartments that always smell like piss and decaying animals, weaving through little gaggles of smokers outside bars, each their own little microcosm, punks mixed with drag queens, a group of middle-of-the-roads outside an Irish pub, little flirting huddles of well groomed men dressed to impress, each location with their own dash of class strata, either real or aspirational, these soft edged clouds of fantasy overlapping, hopeful and fragile, looking for a reflection in other people’s eyes.

“My place is a mess, please ignore it,” I say. But it’s immaculate. I spent the whole night cleaning.

“Wow, this is a real place. It looks like a grownup lives here,” he jokes. I know he means it as a compliment.

“Yeah, I have furniture.”

“Remember our place in the U District?”

“With the couch space carved into the wall.”

“That was a rathole, huh.”

He takes a seat on the couch but then follows me into the kitchen.

“I can get it,” I say. And he watches me assemble items on a metal serving tray. Opening a cabinet to an enormous array of glassware, specialty glasses for every sort of strange concoction. Tin stemware and Belgium beer glasses, little snifters and small 8-ball glasses, plucking out two thick goblets with glass flies molded into the sides, a tear divot dipping into the stem, from a set of ten, and two shiny flat metal spoons like tiny flat shovels, holes punched in to drain, and divots in the handles to catch the glass lip. I arrange them on the tray with black cloth napkins and I know he knows I’m trying to be fancy.

I get two ice cube trays from the freezer, handing one to him, and he helps me fill the carved glass bowl of the absinthe fountain, the musical ping as I fill it with filtered water and cap it with it’s shiny metal lid adorned with a metal acorn.

A metal serving bowl of sugar cubes and another of strawberries completes the tray and I open another cabinet. Dozens of bottles. Some new and filled with bright green anti-freeze colored liquid, other ancient and filled with olive brown and yellow liquor. His eyes shiny little kid eyes.

“You’ve been busy.”

“I have money now.”

He pulls one of the ancient bottles inspecting it. An 1880 J. V. and C Neufchatel Doubs. “I’m not special enough for this one, huh.”

“Nope,” I say, pulling out a bottle of Lucid and placing it on the tray smiling, retiring to the couch. He follows with the fountain, placing it at the center of the coffee table.

I uncork the bottle and fill the divot in the bottom of each glass, placing each under one of the metal spigots from the fountain, put my spoon across the top of the glass and two sugar cubes on top, turn the decorative knob on the spigot just enough for it to drip, and watch the sugar cubes soak it up, start to soften. He follows.

“So . . . how is she?”

“The same. You know.”

I shake my head. I really didn’t know. I had never met her.

“I don’t know. She has her things. I have mine. Trys is doing good. He just started swimming.”

“Good, good.”

“Little guy was terrified but he kept at it. I feel bad for him, you know, always being in the middle.”

I know he wants to talk about things. I assume things have gone south. But I want him to take his time. I nod, listening.

As the glass fills the oils suspended in the alcohol release turning the drink a milky white, releasing its flavor and smells. The sugar cubes are completely melted away by the time the glass is full and I stir the left over sugar crumbles with the spoon, tinking off the excess.

“Oh, this is excellent,” he says. Taking small sips.

“Yeah, it’s better than it looks. It’s a really traditional recipe. It scored really well online.”

“Do you still have that bottle of Blue Suisse?”

“I’m saving it.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know, my funeral?” He had been trying to get me to open it for years. But I has no intention to.

He makes small talk about work and his office. About his car. These boring common things from such a brilliant mind. It makes me sad. What happens to people. He’s talking about skiing. He never skied before.

We have a second glass. And then a third.

“What’s wrong Billy-B?” I cut through the smokescreen. Getting a little drunk and impatient.

“Nothing’s wrong.”

I give him the stare.

“I don’t know . . . It’s just the same old story. As old as stories.” He spots a rare paperback, The Road to Eleusis. He had bought it for me. “I was going to write you a note in the front.”

“I would have killed you.”

“I know. It seemed funny . . . I mean it’s the same book, right? The same information. Same words. It’s such a strange fetish people have. To want the things most rare and perfect. That they’d lock it up and never read it. What’s the value in that?”

“People always want what they can’t have.”

“I guess that’s it . . . It’s getting late. Thanks for seeing me.”

“Sure Bill. Any time. I love talking to you. It’s been too long. What made you think of me?”

He thinks. “I was sitting in my car. Just sitting. OK, to be honest I was avoiding going inside. Do you ever do that? And I was trying to remember the last time I really felt happy. You know . . . like joyful. And I couldn’t think of a single thing. Blank. And then this perfectly clear image of that time, that trip down 101, that little beach off highway one, where we made the fire and fell asleep on the beach.”

I did remember. Like it was yesterday. We had spent the day chasing each other through the dark redwood forest like tiny ants. This majesty. That put things in perspective.

“You were already asleep and I just stayed awake listening to the waves.”

He seems sad. I want to cry for him.

“ . . . so . . . anyway, I should get drunk driving.”

He leans down to hug me at the door, faces nuzzling necks. Lingering. And then his lips on my neck. Not kissing, just lightly pressed against me. His hand softly wrapped around the back of my hip, our chests touching. His smell is intoxicating. Our weight shifts back against the wall. His lips drift up across my skin, to my ear. I can hear his breath, quick shallow, the heavy pulse in his body. I can feel his heat beat in his bottom lip against my skin. Quickening.

He stands straight but neither of us let’s go and I slide up, against the wall, my feet leaving the floor, his chest pressing into me. I slide my hands through his hair, my head tilted back exposing my neck, my mouth open, my body flushed.

But we separate with a surprised and lustful moan. Wild hungry eyes. And he leaves in a flash, quick steps on the stairs and I slide down to the floor, a pulsing turned on mess.

Fuck.

I try to calm down but end up on the bed, wrestling off my jeans and masturbate with my fingers. And cum immediately but I’m still turned on.

Clean the absinthe clutter up in clean underwear and slide my bare legs onto the cold leather desk chair, powering up my laptop that’s plugged into a much larger screen, insert Ben’s thumb drive, copy the files to my desktop. The compiler is tricky to figure out. I don’t know why Unix guys make it so impossible to use their products. Good UI isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s almost like an esoteric club, the nature of command line operation that required so much more experience to use. But I figure it out. Compile the code. Launch the app. More command line. Thank god Ben printed out the ReadMe. I work through the maze of setup screens and get the database to start documenting my mobile. Seems to be doing something.

In the bottom corner I notice a tagline. A blast from the past. An old friend from the MUSH and MUD days. HateMate. A serious “L337 Haxor” from the old days, a member of the freedom fighter hacker group Cult of the Dead Cat. He must have cobbled this gem together.

I spend the rest of the night researching online and unconsciously working through conflict scenarios with Chase. Like a flu.

****

I have it all worked out in my head on my way to his office. I have the initial conflict, a false sort of emotional thing, and extreme strawman, then a debate over what we need to do, then a compromise for an ending where he feels like he’s talked me into something. No problem.

It’s a reasonably long walk. Literally a block and a half long. Past office after office with windows so you could see in. Busy men in suits probably checking email and playing solitaire. The sunny world outside behind them. What did all of these men do anyway?

I turn into Chase’s office, mouth perched to get in the first word. But it’s Ty’s face sitting beside him in an extra chair behind the desk.

“I hope you don’t mind. I was talking to Ty about your projects and invited him to stay.”

“Not at all.” Fuck. Scrambling to reorient. Another ambush. Ty’s face impatient.

“You wanted to say?”

“I just wanted to stop in and discuss your plot changes.”

“The Pringle’s spots.”

“No, I’m just feeling a little left out. Generally people assign tasks to me and then I assign them out. I have a pretty full backlog.”

“So if I need to get anything done I have to wait for you to get around to reading your email. That doesn’t sound very efficient.”

“It’s less efficient to randomize my designers.” Fuck it. He’s pissing me off.

“It seems to be the only way to get any marketing projects done. Your backlog doesn’t seem to have anything to do with our priority list. We are here to make money, not make you happy.”

I pause for a second. He must know something I don’t to be such a dick in front of Ty. “Let me give you an example. You told Jake to write changes for our Baltimore plot . . . “

“Jake can’t write a plot . . .”He interrupts.

“He can write but Tiberio is in charge of the Baltimore plot. Jake has no idea what the story is.”

“He can’t just ask Tiberio, or shouldn’t you have all of this written down anyway . . . Listen. I went to Tiberio and he said no and that you told him not to. So I went to Jake to do it.”

“The Social Club plot is very complicated. There are a lot of moving pieces. You can’t just throw something in without messing everything else up. Like Santorini’s. The owner is on the city council with Bleuth . . .”

Chase cuts me off, “I’m sure it’s really complicated but it seems to me if the plot makes it impossible to work a few ad placements in then that is a problem. You want to throw away $100,000 because you don’t like where the restaurant owner grew up fifty years ago.”

“I don’t want to throw away $100,000 but those kinds of details are very important.”

He peels off a deep laugh, “Well I guess we’re just going to have to agree to disagree there. I’d rather have the 100 grand. But that’s why I’m marketing and you’re a designer. “

“Creative Director.”

“Are you saying you’re unwilling to fulfill our contractual obligation to Santorini’s?”

“No . . .”

“Are you saying your team is incapable of working in a simple placement?”

“No. I’m saying . . .”

“Yes, what are you saying. I keep hearing excuses. But I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“I’m saying you’re an asshole. Chase. An asshole. Can you understand that?”

He lets it hang in the air. This echo like a gunshot. The proof that he needed.

Ty is unamused.

After a dramatic enough pause Chase adds, “I think we’re done here.”

I’m seething to lay into him but I know my wit is gone. He wins. Damnit. I leave without letting myself say another word. That was not the way I saw it going down.

I storm back in a vapor of angry clouds. Slam the office door to a ringing phone.

“What?”

“Oh . . . sorry . . . No, it’s a good time.”

“Don’t ask.”

“Great . . . No one asked any questions?”

“Yeah, scrub the IP and send me the new address.”

“That email is fine.”

“4123.”

“You’re a lifesaver.”

“You too.” Hanging up.

There’s an IM blinking. A smiley face from Jake. Then a double question mark.

I type back. “Not good.” “Can you work with Tib on those changes.” “Might have to let this one go.”

He types back, “k”’.

I power on my shiny black external hard drive and open the folder. Select all of my work and personal folders and select Copy. Then the external’s folder and hit Paste. A dialogue box with an animated progress bar. “Transferring 217GB. Estimated time 4 hours.”

By the end of the day it’s done. I select all of the folders on my work machine and hit Delete. Then clear the trash bin. I pop the case and unlock the cable on the boot drive, close the case. Take the external with me when I leave for the day.

Chapter 5 – New Book

Outside the tall thick windows of the downtown mall Sebastian watches the blue glow of monsters slowly stomping through the plaza, aimless and passive, ambling. The sound turned off on his sunglasses that dangled ear plugs, eyes blinking with reverse images of a digital landscape.

“Fuck her, man,” Seb’s friend Tim says, slurping out the last drop of a milkshake, stuffed into a 2600 T-shirt.

“It’s complicated,” Seb says.

The mall bustles. Girls dressed in mall store clothes in groups of 2 or 3, each group dressed from a particular store like tribal markings. Larger groups of asian teenagers in elaborate outfits and shoes from Europe, the speckling of downtown workers on late lunches eating alone, the prideful cock of green suited security guards talking into walkies, imagining grand roles for themselves. The food court looked down on the rest of the mall, 4 floors down. Bored and soulless couples holding hands.

By the escalators a new booth has gone in. For $40 you could get a full body scan in the Avatar format of your choice. The default flat image import was less than cool. You could get boxy low poly gamer style generic bodies online and map your face on. These were pretty cool but they all looked like the generic army bodies of first person shooter games. Nothing ever seemed to fit just right. The 3D scans would give you an exact copy of your body and a map of your face and clothes. They looked great but $40. Fuck that.

And that only included one default format. Each of the major app companies had a priority format with this or that feature. None of which were compatible so you needed one for each and each one cost extra. They did it to force you into using their service, the trinkets and extras only working on that one Avatar. Lame. But Seb usually shyed away from the commercial apps aside from a few games and the two popular social sites. And his generic Av worked on all of them.

The games required a bit of extra hardware to work right too. Regular apps could only orient Avs crudely directionally with fake synthetic body motions. So your Av was stiff. Your equipment couldn’t really move with you. Most newer headsets had directional sensors that at least got your head moving. And then of course a host of bracelets and anklets that worked pretty well to animate you but also looked lame.

The newer tech came in trinkets. Seb wore a ring on each hand, plain silver and smooth, that broadcast a constant diff from his sunglasses that housed the screens and battery. Two small shoelace clips and you were pretty set for most aug games. But still a little rigid.

Seb and his friends had started wearing a new line of gamer shirts. They looked pretty cool. And other gamers could recognize you. They worked little black and white graphics onto the clothes that cameras could pick up. Essentially queue marks that realistically modeled your body’s movements to other aug aps. This made your Av move like a real person. They made all kinds of stuff, shirts, pants, hats, shoes. Most of the patterns were exaggerated and looked like skater clothes but they had other stuff you could wear to a button down job. Very discrete. Some with hidden sensors sewn in like the rings but more complicated. But those were really expensive. He’s seen them popping up in adult stores and sewn into sex toys too. Or added to new expensive toy lines.

Tim slides on his sunglasses. “Looks like there’s an invasion.” He’s looking at the monsters in the square.

“Yeah. I don’t know. I’m getting tired of Bak-U-Tan. You just run around shooting crap.”

“It’s fun.”

“Yeah, I don’t know.”

A short pause. “I need to get a belt,” Tim says, “wanna come with?”

They wind down the curl of escalators designed to pass you by the most amount of stores. Seb eyes the hot but vapid girls floating by. Into the Void, a yuppie store that pretended to be edgy by selling black clothes.

A notice pops up on his glasses. “The Void is app enabled. Would you like to use our great new features?” With a yes and no option. He taps the “Don’t show me this again” checkbox with his index finger, the tip fitted with a shiny metal adhesive nail, slightly long and sharp, polished, that the cam in his glasses tracked like a mouse pointer. Then he clicks No.

If you enabled the store apps you’d get savaged by digital sales Avatars working down carefully engineered scripts tailored to your shopping history. Which usually worked pretty well but sometimes it would read through your profile and pitch ridiculous things from misinterpreted phrases, like “Mary Jane” shoes and Pacific Rim shirts obviously from the “rim job” reference in his “About Me” section.

I can see the digital sales representative, perfect chiseled features and his fitted suit like it had been cloned from Brad Pitt’s DNA, asking Tim questions. The voices were getting good but experience still left you feeling like you were working your way through a robotic phone menu. No intelligence.

“I heard you say Belts. Is this correct?” leading the way through the store, his steps not quite matching the floor. But after a while you started tuning out these little glitches.

Tim snatches the cheapest black belt on the rack and the Av rep follows him all the way to the counter explaining the benefits of the quality lines. The faster he walks the faster the rep moves along with him even though his steps were the same speed.

“No I don’t want a membership, goddamnit.” He’s raising his voice as he reaches the register, the only human worker to be seen in the store. She’s smiling. Seb can’t tell if she’s amused at the bad service or enjoying my pudgy buddy’s torture. She’s as polished as the digital creatures.

“Will this be all for you today?” she asks not looking up. The only time she speaks. As lifeless as the phone menu conversation.

On the way out the door the Av rep calmly explains the benefits of an extended warranty for his belt.

****

When they get to the street the war is raging, the zip tracers fire across the plaza blazing through the crowds unaffected. The rumble of concussion, the thunderous footfalls and screeching monster bellows.

Tim slips the controller onto his hand like white plastic brass knuckles, taps his finger a couple of times in the air and it sparkles into a massive hand held canon with a scope, his body now thick and clunky with sci-fi looking armor and a helmet.

Seb’s not feeling it. But then a pink dot tracks across his chest and a loud “ZIP!” and a digital explosion of sparks, the virtual world shaking and flickering. A squint on his face, then an evil smile.

Three taps and a mechanized transformation, enclosing around him. Huge metal armor like a Samurai , a contorted grey face. His controller stretches out into a long rifle. They both roll behind the pillars of the mall entrance.

Zip, Zip, Zip, Zip all around them, digital shrapnel buzzing and ricocheting.

Seb holds the rifle up, the scope zooming in with cross hairs and read outs, pointed to where the shot that hit him had come. Scanning the concrete planters and hot dog cart, waiting for the monster’s leg to leave his field of view. Zip Zip Zip and he ducks. The tracer fire giving away the position, leaned way back on the stairs of a dais, in all black. Zooming in and floating the cross hairs over the masked sniper’s closed eye, the shot floating up and down with his breath, impossible to hold still. Patiently waiting.

Zip Zip Zip. Tim returns fire across the plaza to a more obvious group by the fountain.

Waiting. Tracking the slow rise and fall with his breath. Waiting patiently. Calming. The eye opens ever so slightly tipping up for a shot. Click. Blam! Digital skull exploding back onto the concrete, a huge fanned out red mark. All of the sniper’s equipment disappears and armor blinks off, a Mr. Yuck face floating over his and then in text on the display [Screen Name] fraks Untouchable. The dead sniper boy pounding the stairs in anger.

Two taps and Seb’s rifle shortens to a canon. Another and he’s surrounded by floating balls that circle him. And then straight towards the fountain, firing wildly, the balls absorbing shots and slowly disappearing as he advances.

One of the fountain boys, a young kid, maybe 12, pops up firing wildly, running backwards without looking, right off the curb into the street and in front of a cab. The crackle of plastic and squelch of brakes, the kid popping up and hard down, sliding across the pavement and into the tires of a scooter, knocking it sideways, the driver falling.

There’s a pause. The firing stops. A glancing around. And then a flurry. Boys running out from various hiding spots and stashing controllers. Running in every direction to get away like a cop raid. Seb and Tim included. Mixing into the street crowds.

Two blocks down they slow, half laughing.

“Holy shit,” Tim says. “Did you see that?”

“Natural selection,” Seb says unaffected.

They slip into a chain coffee shop and wait out the spectacle, sitting at a sidewalk table playing Suit Slaughter. Seb flicks his finger and a digital throwing star zings out into the crowds sticking into an elderly asian woman, blood trickling down as she passes. “Damn.”

Tim flicks his, dead center into a business man’s back, victory sounds, the 8 changing into a 9 next to the suit icon on his side of the screen.

Tim borrows Seb’s notebook.

“Who’s Sarah?” Tim asks, Seb giving a Why? sort of look. “Sarah Miller,” It’s in your book.

Seb slides the book over, inspecting. “No idea.” Unfamiliar writing in his notebook. The name “Sarah Miller.” With the number 32187432 and a sketch of a symbol, [describe symbol].

None of it looked familiar. Seb closes the book.

“Seems safe, let’s split.”

****

He tried to stay out as late as he could. But the lights are still on in his uncle’s apartment, a rickety two bedroom carved out of a once large house on the second floor, a wobbly rail of cheep black metal around a small balcony. His small breaths escaping him in long white velvet streams, tucking his arms under his damp hoody. The cold mist dotting his forehead. He leans back against the warped wood grey siding trying to find a dry spot, back into the bushes so no one can see him. Shivering.

His mobile’s battery is almost dead. One bar. So he sits back on his heals to keep out of the mud. Runs his fingers through the wet and delicate leaves of clover. Tracing around the small round petals, the softness on his skin, remembering when he was little and searching for four leaf clovers with his mom in the park. She could find five in an hour. It was a gift of hers. The crude clover tattoo on her ankle. He wondered if they were related.

An hour and a half pass and he checks every 15 minutes. And the light finally is dark. He waits another half hour and slinks up to the door. Unlatching the lock as quietly as possible and tiptoes up the creaky stairs. Unlatching the lock with the quiet finesse of a safe cracker.

His heart is racing. But everything seems quiet. Dim outlines of a living room. Dishes on the coffee table, the yellow angle of street light illuminating the brown and yellow knitted afghan crumpled on the couch. Quiet steps to his bedroom door and closing it behind him without turning the light on.

The silhouette of storage, stacks of boxes and upturned tables, unused exercise equipment and piles of clothes with hangers on them, paper grocery bags stuffed with things. He works through the maze of storage, over to the window and to a small space with an inflatable mattress and a blanket. A backpack trailing clothes out and a plastic baggie with a toothbrush and small toothpaste tube inside.

He empties his pockets in a pile and plugs his phone and sunglasses into cords plugged into the wall. Takes off his shoes and shimmies into this small bed, tucking the worn blanket under his body, slipping the sunglasses back on, the short cable pulled tight and snapping the black cover over them to get the overlay to turn to a full screen, even though it was plenty dark enough. It just worked that way.

Laying on his back, using the thumb wheel on his phone to navigate the interface, texting into the fields. He has a text message. “ chicken <3 sock monkey >_< “

He launches a web browser. Types “Sarah Miller” into a search page. A huge list of results. Sarah Miller seemed like a common enough name that he’d hit dozens but they’re all news feed pages with different takes on the same story. “Seattle youth mysteriously disappears. The UW sophomore . . . “ Each link goes to a dead page. A 404 error. One and then the next. A dozen stories just gone. That was really strange. The dates were all recent, within the month. He scans through a dozen more and then on the third page of results a link to a social networking site. Click.

An average smile. Blonde hair with bangs. She liked average bands. Nothing outstanding. A flirty sort of demeanor. Her pics were set to private. 216 friends. Decently popular. They all seemed like faces not just bands or fake profiles. But only a few resent comments. She must not have been well missed. A series of “Where are you?”s and “We missed you at the”s. Like no one knew she was missing. She studied biology apparently. But her books sounded academic. Anthro maybe. Definitely culture studies.

He studies her eyes. It’s a digital snapshot she’s taken of herself. He’s looking for some key. Some way in. He studies the comments but there’s nothing out of the oridinary. Fairly sporadic. The usual, “You finally made an account!” comments at the end. He clicks through to the most frequent posters but they all seem like fellow students. Pretty boring. A couple from Baltimore friends. Maybe where she grew up.

He goes back to her friends, opening the full list and scanning down the faces. Not sure what he’s looking for. Page after page, maybe hoping to find a familiar one. Six pages in. Scanning. Wait. Something familiar. A sporty boy with brown hair and a cheesy smile . . . dots not connecting. Click.

“Samuel Clary” The pictures are public. Snaps in bars with muscley friends. Jock clothes and body shots of leather-tan cheerleader types. Shots on a boat. He recognizes a local bar downtown where business types would go after work or for office birthday lunches. But nothing unusual.

A folder called “Recent”. A shaved head now and an instant recognition. The guy from the bar the night before. Who’d borrowed the notebook. He doesn’t know how he could have not recognized it immediately. Back to the profile. More “Hey, where’d you disappear to” messages starting yesterday night. A “Dude! Turn on your phone!” comment. He hasn’t logged on.

Scanning down the sporty faces. And then one out of place. A mystic looking pic of a Mandelbrot set. Click.

This was a bunch of free-your-mind stuff. Very out of character for a fluff headed jock with pussy on the brain. Cryptic descriptions. Obscure interest in esoteric books. Rare references Seb had run across researching arcane topics. And there, at the bottom of the page, a comment with a link to a photo stream page from Mr. Sporty Sam. Click.

A close up pic of a sculpture, ancient and Hindu looking, that symbol sketched onto the notebook page carved in. Worn and aged. The next page of a foreign currency he didn’t recognize. That symbol graphically included in the etching. Then a mortise piece on a building. That symbol. A corporate logo. That symbol. A scroll with a painting of two men posing in what looked like a Thai Chi diagram. That symbol. Each image some random out of place object but each showing the symbol. A pic of him doing a rubbing of a tombstone in what looked like Scotland. And then a pic of a group of 6 business men posing. Immaculate and expensive. One of the men wearing an amulet with that same symbol. The image has been ripped out of a newspaper, the face circled and scanned. At the bottom of the page a single post. Sarah Miller’s face but a different pic and the username, “Bottom Pajamom”. And the short comment, “You’ve seen it too.” He clicks on her profile but it’s just the name. No other comments by her. Just that one pic. Dated three days before the first comment on her profile asking where she was.

He opens a new window. Searches the name of the corporate logo on a plastic ring binder on a desk in the group business man shot. [Name of Corp]. Hundreds of results. A corp website. But three down an article, “[Name of Corp] breaks new ground with their new social game experience, Social Club. Participants are invited to . . . “

Social Club was the name of the lame LARP group Pillow has stood him up at and Mr. Sporty Sam got aped out of. He thinks. Launches the map program and types in Pioneer Square, Seattle.

The night city sparkling below him. White road names on dark streets. The full night sky with millions of stars, only not twinkling. A few layers of cloud images to simulate the overcast night sky. Scrolling down into the looking streets and totem poles of the old neighborhood built during the gold rush, a last stopping point, old faded signs for long gone businesses still over the brick building sides.

As he descends more detail phases in. More images overlaid. Little squares of current reality dotting on, a show flow of new coats of snapshot paint as the map bots catch the most recent images posts, bar snapshots mailed to friends from a mobile, dinner party poses, random snibits cropped out of background window views. Stationary squares of live video feed, positioned to fit with the perspective, like little windows into the real world. His ghost eyes peeking out into the streets.

He floats down into the alley of the warehouse. The area is way less detailed, almost entirely satellite shots laid on the buildings, a coarse and blurry grain. But as he gets closer images are arranged all around the door. Snapshots of the party goers from last night. All down the alley path. Smiling faces. Last minute hookups. Eager and uncomfortable strangers not even comfortable enough yet to hold hands even though they’re heading off to have sex. Sad and lonely singles. Boys and girls. Captured in the backgrounds of couples with a reason to snap a pic. The blooming orange and green shadows from alley lights modeled across the brick street in the pics.

He hovers to the door. Nothing since yesterday. Opens the time display and scrolls backwards. Day into night again. Until the pics start disappearing and changing according to their time stamp. The door opening with the ape man. He floats through the door, the bar inside choppy, modeled only people’s pics, no satellite underlayer here. Over to the bar and hand types the time he was there. The room flickers. But no one was taking pics at the bar. Nearly all black.

He scrolls over to a booth where a group of drunk college girls were snapping wild cell pics of each and see himself in the background sitting alone. Scrolling the time forward, a confetti mosaic of snapshots, goofy closed eye shots with hands up and flash burn. And then pop, a perfect over the should shot of sporty Sam at the bar.

He drags a square over him and the program assembles all of the pics he’s captured in. Little cropped off edges and spaces between faces. Stitched together and places for perspective. He scrolls the time forward. A jagged version of the ape, clearly snatching him up.

He floats over to the door, the last little sparkles of them disappearing from a captured idmage. At least h had the exact time. Back out into the alley standing at the exact eye line, scanning buildings and store fronts until he lines up a sandwich shop a block or so off. A double click and he’s standing in front of it and then inside, string back at the alley entrance, a grey squire of security video positioned over the window, and a grainy but clear shot now of the door, the ape. Sporty Sam. He slowly scrolls the movie forward.

There’s a black van outside the club. The quality’s too bad to read the plates or see the driver. The ape tossing Sporty Sam into an open door like luggage on an airplane, hands reaching out to pull him in from the darkness, and then fast away, the ape guy taking his place again, calm and collected and then his image, leaving. He scrolls the time back, watches the van pull up, the ape talking into the dark doors. Double clicks the club and he’s back inside, scrolling back to a nice clear assemblage of Sporty Sam’s face at the bar, his notebook in his hands.

He’d gotten a Beta of FaceTrace from Tim before it got pulled from the Web. And clicks Sam’s face. Calculating. The little dots of facial recognition speckling his grainy grey features. And then nothing. He waits. Then tries again. Nothing.

Then a beep, beep, beep, beep. An exclamation point icon at the corner of his screen. His scrubber program set up to alert him when someone was running a trace on his location. Fuck. Fuck. He fumbles his mobile device and cracks open the back and pulling the small battery out. And then his sunglasses just in case. His heart racing again for an entirely different reason.

He tries to sleep but his eyes are wide open.

How Fucking Romantic.

I do believe our love’s in danger
I might as well be loving air
You look at me like I’m a stranger
You look at me like I’m not there

I gaze into your eyes of blue
But their beauty is not for me
You’re thinking of someone who’s gone
You’re dreaming of the one you really love
You’re dreaming of the one you really love

I made you mine, or so it seemed
Though he is dead he haunts your dreams
I might as well be two feet tall
You never will love me at all

I gaze into your eyes of blue
But their beauty is not for me
You’re thinking of someone who’s gone
You’re dreaming of the one you really love
You’re dreaming of the one you really love

I gaze into your eyes of blue
But their beauty is not for me
You’re thinking of someone who’s gone
You’re dreaming of the one you really love
You’re dreaming of the corpse you really love

- the magnetic fields. 69 love songs.

Chapter 4 — New Book.

“Thanks everybody.” I can see the sun outside. White capped mountains surrounded by lush forests. The slow angle of a ferry purring off to some quiet island. An increasingly magnetic attraction.

I can’t believe it’s already 4. Eager faces with empty pages. I uncap a marker, it’s poison smell like car exhaust in a closed room.

“So . . . what do we need to talk about . . . “

I make a title, Plot 107, underline it and then a list.

“Actions . . . Back Story . . . Integration . . . Media . . . Mule Schwag . . . Anything else? . . . Justin?”

“Um . . . aug launch?”

“Aug Launch. Seems good. Ok, Actors. Kazi . . . “

“Ok so here’s what we go . . . “ fanning out three print outs of face shots, the group closes around them, “They’re all pretty good, no one local, willing to fly in whenever we need them. #2 speaks Spanish but he’s a little short. #3’s a monster but doesn’t sound very smart. #1’s got an interesting limp.”

We take turns weighing the pros and cons.

“Sounds like we’re leaning towards #1?” I ask.

“Works for me,” Kazi says, gathering the pics.

“OK, #1.” I cross out “Actors”.

“Back Story,” I say. “I know you’re on that ending Jen, but any thoughts?”

She’s staring at the wall with her hand on her forehead. “Mmmm . . . I’ll probably do something like what we did with the Hector story. A little more techie. Something subtle.”

“Collateral?”

“Mmmm . . . like 6 profiles. That Stacy idea, she’ll need friends. Maybe a little life background for the security guard, like an award from ten years ago. Maybe some blog posts for him on a pet website. And of course we’ll need a new security company. Something flat, it’s not worth fleshing out the whole biz. How mysterious do we want this thug?

“Very.”

“Awesome. Less work for me.”

“Press release,” Sabine adds.

I scratch through Back Story and Integration.

“Media.”

Sabine chimes in, “I need to work with Justin on the aug launch. I’ll be using the usual outlets otherwise. We’ll do an info leak to Key 15 which should make the usual circuit blogs. We’ll feed Key 18 and Key 31 with our conspira-net sites. The usual tabloid letter drop. We’ll do a 911, see if we can get the blotter. The elections are coming up, maybe we can get picked up as platform support, smear-mercial, something. . . “

“What about chatter?” I ask.

“Good. I’ll get our market boys to spread it around . . . maybe . . .”

“Drop it to that janitor in the Columbia Tower. He’s a talker. Older guy . . . “

“I know him,” Sabine says, jotting a note.

I scratch through Media.

“Ok, Mule Schwag. Who’s the new mule?”

“DJ Suck Hole.” Vasudha’s spreading out printouts of T-shirt designs she’s put together. Gaudy gold on black in elaborate full shirt designs. They look typical but expensive designery. But in each she’s worked our latest symbol in various ways. You wouldn’t notice it but if you’re looking for it it’s blaring. “I like this one.”’

“These are great,” I say. “I kind of like this brass knuckle thing in this one . . . can you work a little of that in the one you like?”

“Sure.”

“Sabine, see if we can buy a spot in the credits. Like Wardrobe Assistant to DJ Scrotum Face. Then we can pin her to the corp as an easter egg. Make her something strange like Jacob’s golf coach.”

She makes a note and I scratch through Mule Schwag.

“Ok, Aug Launch. What’s the plan?”

Justin sketches on the white board in green. A street map. “We’ll bring them in here and do a drop at the edge of the black zone. Foot entry so we don’t have to deal with the van getting tracked down. Then we’ll do the whole set in real time.” He’s drawing the path and explaining the plot. “Then the big finale at the market. Then straight back out to the black zone for pick up. We’ll do a release of the market scene and let the miners dig back from there. We do a crossover with Key 15 here, “ marking the map, “ just for kicks and I think this would be a good place to release Key70. The Red Daggers will recognize her immediately and we’ve already loaded her with the water plot.”

I glance to Jen and she nods. I pause thinking. Tapping my pen. I’m not so confident that Key 70 will play her part the right way. She talked too much and panicked at the wrong times.

“Let’s do a test run with her like we did with . . . um . . .” Kazi nods at me remembering and I can see an annoyed glaze spread across Justin’s face. “I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. Let’s just do a test.” He’s not convinced.

I erase the list and we part without speaking.

****

One meeting left. The worst meeting. Every two weeks the department heads get together to decide on resource allocation and priority. The cool and snide executive warfare. This dance of political dominance. A host of unwritten rules of engagement.

A deep breath.

The business had slowly started to eat at my soul. Taking little nibbles. Little pieces I didn’t think I’d miss. Compromises. Choosing lesser evils. Placating tender egos and narrow visions with poorly thought out ideas. These were smart men. But they rarely followed actions past the payout. Not even caring about the product, just superficial victories as ladder pegs. Gleaning a back pat and passing off the failure to whatever poor sap unlucky enough to have to try to make it work. Upper business was a whole fish tank of this kind of shit. Hopping from one business to the next on neural friend networks. Shiny resumes built on dodged bullets and polished piles of bullshit. Tall white men with firm handshakes and deep voices. Practicing their back swing. A subtext designed to exclude and dominate.

I take my seat at the table, I minute till 5. Our VP, Ty, at the head and I sit so that my manager is between us but close enough that I look engaged. Facing Dave, the advertising lead and Y, the acquisition manager. Chase takes a seat as close to Ty as possible, an invisible appendage crammed right up his ass. Chase was Mr. Teflon. 12 years. An endless stream of fumbled projects and failed initiatives. Jumping from one title to another. Somehow always becoming the new guy’s ass-kiss just in time to get promoted over some successful group just to undermine it with trivialities invented for him to take credit. An endless stream of bullet points and impossible deadlines, sharp judging fingers pointed at helpless developers.

Not surprisingly an eye on our little group now.

****

I was born at exactly the right time. My mother, a single mom of two kids became pregnant with me, a bastard daughter to a married man that had no impact on my life whatsoever, except maybe his absence. Raised poor in a West Virginia suburban ghetto. A strange violent sort of place where my mom carried a gun in her purse and a club by her bed. I have fuzzy memories of a thick mustached man, a stranger, wild eyes, dressed in tacky 70’s clothes keeping me and my brother downstairs as his friend raped our babysitter. Two neighbor boys. When I was four or five.

My mother, having no real means to support her family or keep them safe, went back to school to learn computer programming. Back then computers were strictly a business tool. People got paid to feed punch cards into the computer to run basic programs that we take for granted today. These card stock sheets of paper with holes punched in like a player piano reel. This is how the program was remembered. A quaint and insanely physical manifestation of what is now entirely virtual. Hundreds of cards in a stack, jammed in a slot like a time card. One after another. This was someone’s job.

She was the first of a generation to program on enormous servers from IBM which used magnetic tape. Room sized behemoths that you had to talk loud to hear over. My mother, raised in a hand built wooden shack with gaps between the boards, did not realize that she was exceptionally good at logic and algorithms and machine language. She was a gifted natural and soon had written the software foundation to the company she worked for from scratch. Payroll, reporting, inventory. The whole deal. Just her.

And this becomes important when I, a hopelessly outcast alien of a bastard child, first meet my mother’s brand new IBM PC XT 8088 (a step up from the 8086 and a whopping 4.77 MHz). Nine years old. And get my paws on a syntax reference book for a programming language called BASIC. Which to me was probably the coolest thing I have yet to lay eyes on.

Eventually she smuggled home this huge suitcase of a portable computer for me, the Compaq Portable. The bottom unsnapped to reveal a full sized PC keyboard, a tiny green monochrome screen and two 5 1/4” floppy drives. No one had a real computer in 1983. At best you’d get something like a Vic-20 (I had a Commodore Plus/4) and you’d spend all day typing in some ridiculous program that made X’s print across the screen and then turn it off and loose all your work.

I crammed a small hand-me-down desk into my closet with the Compaq, closed the door and hid in the lime green glow.

As it turns out I had the same knack. Mastering loops and conditionals, I discovered the grid, how to plot points then lines then with variables came programmatic multiplicity and with the handy XOR conditional came animation. And then naturally games.

I also found myself in the state’s meager gifted program which was almost entirely useless except when I was in 8th grade and they allowed me to enroll in one college class at night each quarter through high school. Which I hungrily consumed (one of two kids). Enrolling in 200 and 300 level programming courses in COBOL, Pascal, Ada, Fortran, the whole cornucopia of soon to be dead languages. The school purchased from another school a bulk of time on the internet which outside of academia was basically unknown. And now being enrolled in upper programming classes, I was allotted an account. And this strange and unlikely circumstance would forever change my life.

Let’s’ skip past the obvious. Past the interschool chat and my first encounters with cyber sex with anonymous strangers, past the greasy haired hacker boys who taught me illegal computer tricks in the early mornings of all night computer lab stints. Past everything until I was introduced to what was called a MUSH (Multi User Shared Hallucination). Which amounted to a text only massive multiplayer game. Except no real rules, no points, no one won. You created a character, essentially just a text description of yourself and then you could move from room to room interacting with other players. The rooms were just text descriptions and a list of other people there. A few basic commands. So if you wanted to look at someone else you would type “LOOK [insert player’s name]” and you could read their description.

And then you could talk. Which was more or less the thick of it. It was pure role play. Consensual. And often based around an existing genre or book theme to provide the world details. Obsessive programmers mapping out whole cities, room by room. University student admins hacking space under their bosses noses and leaking the secret port numbers through word of mouth.

You work through the usual. Like making a super hot slutty girl character and let guys woo you into having graphic text sex, “Cyber”. Then naturally a hot boy character and sex with another girl. Eventually leading to more fleshed out characters and better roleplay. Quirks and challenges. You could try on any skin and live out happy or vile fantasies. Elaborate murder, crime, acts of compassion, acts of dominance, playing a victim. One by one my friends dropped out. Staying in their rooms. A serious and crippling addiction to these worlds, months would pass. And then like from some chrysalis they would emerge. Changed. Having lived out hundreds of lives, if only in story.

And then they would take the Journey. Traveling across the country, town to town, staying at friend’s houses of people they’d met online. Endless magnificent sex and adventure. These pathetic geeky boys returning completely whole and functional. It was the most amazing thing.

Every couple of weeks someone would stop through. Someone on the Journey. Friends with the whole geeky online tribe of our town. A celebration of connection. This virtual utopia becoming real. It was a beautiful possibility.

But then, one day in 1993, sitting in the lab, I was introduced to Mosaic, the first web browser I’d seen. The birth of the World Wide Web. And more or less the death of our happy little world. And I knew it immediately, the second I saw it. It was a revelation.

Before the web, to view an image it had to be encoded into text and then broken up into smaller files to download, say twelve text files. You download all twelve, this took a while, stitch them all together into one long text file and then decode it (I used uudecode). And for the first time you’d get to see what the image was of. Tedious to say the least.

On the web you could see an image instantaneously, right on the screen. Which really was the revolution. It meant for the first time you could market with pictures. And just like that, almost overnight, capitalism and businesses consumed the whole damn thing. You started seeing commercials for computers on television.

The rest evolved so quickly and precisely it was like something out of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A gestalt shift. The world took one more step into the virtual.

Stores suddenly had virtual locations. People had “home” pages, virtual depictions of themselves instead of characters, as if they suddenly were a character, a fiction of their own making. Going places TV had failed.

Fast forward past the millennium. When every business scrambled to be a part of social networking. This commoditized mutant of once true tribal yearnings. When large white men with money in their eyes tacked “social” onto every PowerPoint presentation. A bullet point. There was potential then too. They could have done great things. These small minded men. Laughing with bleached teeth.

****

“Pringles”, Dave says, giving his schpeel like it was the holy grail of ad contracts. I always imagined the sounds of hyenas laughing while he was talking. The ad guys made commission. This contract would buy his trip to Sao Paulo. “I’ve got a lot of ideas here.” He’s made screen shots with window’s Paint. He’s Photoshopped Pringles cans into character’s hands. He’s dropped potato chip patches onto cop uniforms. He has keychains to hand out at events. He has “sponsored by Pringles” under the Social Club logo.

I’m staring at my manager but he doesn’t look at me.

Chase continues, “We project 2 million in first year revenue and 6 million by the end of the second. It’s going to take dedication on our side but given the revenue potential this should definitely be our priority going forward. “

Dave tags back in, “We’ve already begun work on this and we’re very excited. Sorrow and I discussed it earlier. What do you think Sorrow?”

He hadn’t mentioned it before just now. Everyone knows I wouldn’t allow the cops to wear Pringles badges in my game like NASCAR whores.

I was being set up.

The room pauses waiting for me to throw out an idealist rant about protecting the customer but that would be suicide.

“I guess I still need to be brought up to speed on the contract. But I can think of a ton of places to work Pringles into the current story arcs. We can even build a story specifically for them. Let me take Dave’s ideas here and run them through my team. I’m sure we can come up with something great.”

“No need,” Chase says, passing out a black and white printed power point presentation with placements worked into website pages and ridiculously fake looking game collateral. I page through it thoughtfully. He’s created a fake Pringles building downtown.

“These are good,” I say. I’m lying. These are horrible. This is like making someone wait through a 30 second spot before their car brakes trigger or chain coffee that makes you piss corporate logo colors. This, I think, is insulting.

“We did do a lot of testing with this sort of thing last year and saw a significant drop in subscription revenue. Can we run some of this through a focus group? We can get one together by next Wednesday. I’m worried about disturbing our base. Maybe we can brainstorm some more . . . realistic placements?”

Fuck. Wrong word choice. I’m a goner.

“How much did we lose last time we went through this?” Dave’s talking directly to my manager instead of me. “I mean I’m all for testing but not when it keeps us from getting anything done. We can’t afford to be in a perpetual state of user testing.”

I never had a chance really. It was nice that they were going through the motions.

“Now Dave,” my manger says, “We have guidelines for sponsor placements. Do you want me to send you the doc?”

What? He was taking a dive. He would never play the inflexible idealist standing in the way of money card. Ty must have had a talk with him to roll over like this. It was over. Check mate.

“Work in the Pringle spots,” Ty says to my manager, then, “What’s next?”

It’s amazing how quiet and subtle the really important moments can be. How an observer could have entirely missed this complete shift in power. Missed the calculated beauty and devastating ramifications. It wasn’t about Pringles or testing or quarterly revenue KPIs or projected growth.

This was the exact moment that Chase took Social Club away from me.

“Virtual Buddies,” Chase says, not even smiling. He’s handing Ty a graph. “We can significantly reduce churn in our low income sectors by offering an ad enabled version as a winback option. RJ put together some initial numbers for us. We can predict a 1.2 million dollar increase in advertising with just a single month of retention. From these early numbers it might actually make sense to play with our low tier subscription pricing a bit and figure out the sweet spot.”

He doesn’t ask my opinion or look at me. The change was instantaneous. Irretrievable. I can’t help but feel defeated.

****