Network Down: Part Two

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“Dani, are there any nearby buildings open right now?!”

Checking…The Barrows Banking and Loan seems to have left its doors open.

Really? Maybe the rumors about that place were true then. He’d had his own reasons to suspect so after all. Still he’d never make it there with that truck coming after him.

“Dani, can you establish which network that truck is connected to?” Kevyn wheezed out as he felt a stitch growing in his side.

It’s a public service. Voracia Systems.

“Dani, buy a hack from the black market. Get me control of that truck!”

Sir, even performing that query is a misdemeanor and actually implementing it is–

“Do it!” he screamed as he felt the rumble of the truck’s nearing mass. It wasn’t slowing down to let one of the passengers out to grab him, it was going to run him over! Not even daring to look, Kevyn tried to judge its distance from him until the last possible moment.

“Not yet… not yet…” he muttered to himself through clenched teeth. “Now!” He threw himself to the side just as the truck tore through the space he had just been standing in. It wasn’t able to swerve to follow his lunge in time, and so he fell to the pavement untouched. There came another squeal as the truck spun back around to face him.

Sir, I have access to the truck’s internal functions.

“Alright, on my word I want you to accelerate it down the street, lock the doors, and…”

Kevyn stopped speaking as the truck’s wheels whined from the strain of being turned too quickly. In his anxiousness to run Kevyn over the driver had overestimated his vehicle’s capabilities, and now the entire thing lifted onto its two side wheels, teetered there for a moment, and then thudded down on its side.

Sir?

Kevyn snapped himself out of his disbelief, turned away from the truck, and began sprinting the other direction.

“Never mind, Dani,” he panted. “I guess it’s just a misdemeanor…for now.”

He could hear the looters clambering out of their sideways vehicle, and a quick glance over his shoulder showed that they were still intent on running him down. At this point their persistence seemed to be fueled more by rage than anything else.

“Dani, direct me to the Barrows Banking and Loan.”

Certainly. Just take your next right and it’s two blocks down on the left.

“Alright, and keep track of those guys chasing us. I want to know if–”

Kevyn was interrupted as all of the ad-boards crackled back to life. He didn’t slow in his pace, but listened intently, hoping to hear that the security network had been restored already. From the very first words was disappointed.

“This is CLNN, the Chicago Local News Network” blared down the deserted streets. “Hello Chicago, my name is Cindy Trulick. As the city continues to be blackened by a security network failure, we are now receiving additional word that Governor Haley has just been assassinated in his office. We started seeing reports on social media three minutes ago, and the details are consistent enough to conclude that heavily armed assailants broke into the City Office Building, subdued local security, and then shot and killed the Governor. We cannot yet verify that this attack was the intention behind the citywide security network failure, nor which organization might be behind this atrocity. It has been posited on many social media forums though that the mob has had reason to–”

Kevyn stopped listening. To all the rest of the city this news might be significant. To him, in this moment, he couldn’t care less. His legs were beginning to get wobbly, entirely unaccustomed to such vigorous exercise, and with every glance over his shoulder he could see that his pursuants were growing ever nearer. He made those glances after every twenty paces, and then looked forward to the looming figure of the Barrows Banking and Loan, trying to gauge whether he was going to make it there or not.

Kevyn glanced backwards once more, just in time to see that one of the looters had fallen behind his fellows and moved into a shooting stance with the gun raised to his cheek. The man was aiming with what appeared to be a practiced confidence. Kevyn tried to lunge sideways, but too late. The high staccato of the gun being fired echoed down the street and Kevyn felt a sudden, searing pain in his arm. He instinctively clapped his other hand over the spot, about halfway up from his elbow, and found his fingers moistened by blood.

He felt shock at the realization of having been shot, yet Kevyn managed to stumble back into his run and the aiming looter followed suit. The man would wait until he was a little closer before trying again.

“Just keep going,” Kevyn muttered to himself. He was now nearing the doors to the Barrows Banking and Loan. He would make it inside, he would find help, he would survive this…no matter the cost.

The building had a distinct and old-fashioned style to it. The architecture was Roman in design, complete with supporting external pillars, white marble, and an unnecessarily long flight of stairs to its entrance. Kevyn instinctively tried to swing his arms as he dashed up the steps, but his wounded arm gave protesting spikes of pain at the slightest of movements, compelling him to hold it stiffly at his side.

He mounted the last of the steps and moved into the shadow cast by its overhanging roof. For a moment he was blinded by the sudden transition from light to dark, but he continued groping forward until the heavy oak doors swam into his view.

Kevyn crossed the threshold into the massive lobby within, his quick steps echoing loudly off the marble floor as the upper-class people lounging around on the plush seats gave him dirty looks. Even in his haste Kevyn couldn’t help but realize how bizarre it was that these people were gathered so calmly behind un-shuttered doors while the rest of the city was gripped in complete terror. It seemed to add further credence to the all of those rumors. Rumors that this business was nothing more than a front.

The receptionist at the desk frowned deeply at Kevyn as he came wheezing up to her station. He was sure he looked a mess, covered in sweat, panting heavily, and bleeding down the arm. Before the woman could call for security he took a deep breath and blurted out his request.

“I want to apply for a position with the Inner City Mob.”

Her eyebrows raised clear into her hairline and her nostrils flared. “What did you just say?!” she exclaimed with a bitter hostility.

Undeterred Kevyn continued. “I have considerable services to offer as a top-of-the-line accountant. If you pull up my profile you’ll see that I have extensive experience with a number of distinguished firms, currently at Johnson & Webber.”

She still looked enraged at his insinuations and was about to spit out a retort when the front doors slammed open again. Kevyn took a hasty glance over his shoulder and saw the looters awkwardly file into the place. They quickly spotted him up at the counter and then divided into two group, each slowly strolling up a different side of the room towards him.

“Friends of yours?” the woman said, now with a slight tinge of amusement in her voice.

“No, and I would need…protection from them.”

“Sir, I’m not sure who told you that this place was being run by the mob,” she said curtly, “but they were making a fool of you.”

“No one told me,” he said shortly. “People talk, yes, but I figured it out myself. Last year a man named Barney James transferred 110 million dollars from one of our agencies to this one. I handled the case.”

Out of the corners of his eyes he could see the looters nearly halfway to him. He continued speaking in a hushed but rapid tone.

“And when I did so the FBI came to me and instructed me to install a trace on those funds. It’s an entirely new currency tracking technology, one that not only contaminates the funds it is installed on, but the entire ledger that they sit with. Now I’ve been hearing all this year on the news about how they’re finding all of your side businesses and shutting them down…I’m confident it’s because you’re funding them with that contaminated money. But I know how to help you find which of your funds are tainted and clean them. Just ask your ‘managers,’ they must know something is up–”

A heavy hand fell on Kevyn’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry about our friend here,” the looter said gruffly while digging his fingers into Kevyn’s shoulder. It was the arm that had been shot and Kevyn winced at the fresh waves of pain that came over him. “We’ll just be taking him and going.”

Kevyn looked his silent plea to the receptionist, but he only saw cold indifference in her face. She merely nodded and two more sets of hands grabbed Kevyn, pulling him away from the desk.

“But wait–I–” Kevyn wriggled around but couldn’t free himself from their grasps. They were dragging him back across the lobby, towards the exit, into the streets. All of the patrons seated on the plush seats still seemed strangely disinterested in his plight. Most of them refused to even make eye contact with him, their faces buried in their various digital devices.

Kevyn spun his head back around to look at the receptionist over his shoulder. “Please, just give me a chance to–” his eyes grew wide. He had just been dragged past a group of four patrons, all of which were now silently rising to their feet behind the looters, reaching into their coats, pulling out black-metal guns.

Kevyn cried out and flung himself to the floor so suddenly that he managed to break the grips on him. One of the looters cursed, and it was the last sound he ever made. The high-pitched whistle of silenced weapons rushed over Kevyn’s head, followed by the thuds of the looters’ bodies on the clean marble.

Kevyn’s hands were up around his head, trembling, waiting for one of those bullets to find him. Waiting, waiting, but the shot never came. Slowly he looked up and saw the receptionist marching down the floor towards him, waving the assassins to the side and motioning them towards the entrance doors. They moved away and began locking the place down. She reached him and stooped down to look him in the eyes.

“My…managers wish to speak with you. Please follow me.”

He awkwardly clambered to his feet, his face still washed in dumb disbelief. He started to instinctively turn, to look at the fallen forms of the men at his feet. He caught a glimpse of one of their boots before he stopped and turned back. He didn’t need to see. Just knowing was harrowing enough.

“You understand what this means, don’t you?” the receptionist squinted at him.

He nodded. Just like that, he had sold his soul. His home, his job, his loved ones… his entire life up until this morning. They were all gone. But–he was alive. That was all that mattered wasn’t it?

The receptionist turned and walked back the other way and Kevyn followed after her. She led him to an elevator. It’s glass doors slid apart and they stepped inside. They stood there in almost complete silence, the only noise was the occasional drip of blood from his arm echoing off the floor.

“We’ll need a clean-up crew, and he’ll need a doctor to look after his arm” she said into an unseen microphone. “…yes, of course I shut down the entry.”

There was a screen in one of the upper corners of the elevator and it suddenly came to life with another public alert. Kevyn knew what the text was going to say before it even showed up.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just regained control of its security networks. All monitoring and robotic police units are fully functioning again. Even so, citizens are still encouraged to remain indoors until the streets have been cleared of debris.”

It didn’t matter, Kevyn thought. It was too late. Fifteen minutes and his entire life had been lost, replaced by something else. That new life was looking pretty bleak perhaps…but at least he had something.

 

On Monday I said it was my intention to write a story where the main character loses what he has to gain something new. In this case it was his entire way of life. Kevyn has made a choice that he will never be able to walk back from. Even if he tries to undo it, there will be permanent ramifications that follow him wherever he goes.

But, of course, that was his choice. The only reason why he would make a choice to lose the life he knew for something so much worse, was that it was preferential to losing his life entirely. Many times you see this in stories. Tragedy strikes, takes all that the heroes had defined themselves by, and forces them to face the new. Usually that change isn’t what they wanted, but it ends up bringing them to their ultimate calling. This is Luke in Star Wars, Edmond in the Count of Monte Cristo, and Hansel and Gretel. Who knows, maybe there is a way through to a happy ending even for Kevyn.

We’ll just have to use our imaginations there, though, because this marks the end of Network Down, and also the entire story. Come back next week when we’ll be off to something new. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

Network Down: Part One

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Kevyn strode down the sidewalk bearing that satisfied contentment that always came during his midday ritual. Each day around noon he made sure to get away from the office for a bagel and some fresh air. His carefree reverie was interrupted by the triple-honk of a nearing taxi, the cabby calling out to see if he wanted a ride.

“Dani, I don’t want any transportation,” he sighed.

Confirmed. The digital assistant sounded in his ear as she updated his public profile. Now all of the HUDs on the passing taxis would see a red X over his head.

“I thought I set a reminder for that, Dani,” he stressed. “Whenever I leave for lunch I want to just walk.”

Whenever you leave your workplace between the hours of 11 am and 1 pm?

“Figure it out,” he said. It was a phrase that Dani would understand to mean she should use her own algorithms to assume his intent.

Confirmed.

Kevyn reached the alley that led down to his favorite bakery. It had been intentionally positioned apart from the main thoroughfare as the owner valued a personal relationship with all his clientele. No one came here unless they meant to, and everyone who did soon became a regular. It wasn’t business so much as family.

Twenty minutes later Kevyn emerged having enjoyed the combination of good food with even better conversation. He felt invigorated to tackle all of the afternoon’s reports, and maybe even still have time to–

ALERT! ALERT!” A loud voice suddenly cut through the air, simultaneously emanating from every ad-board in the entire city. Everywhere Kevyn looked he was met with the same warning bulletin.

“The Chicago Central Police Department has just been compromised by a network attack. This attack has crippled all communication with automated units. Regular police forces remain in active duty, but citizens are strongly urged to vacate the streets and lock down their premises. Keep watching for confirmation of system restoration.”

An artificial voice began reading the message out loud but Kevyn didn’t need any further warning. He instinctively spun around to seek shelter in the bakery he had just left, but the metal shutters were already clanging shut. No doubt they were automated to do so in such events, and could not open back again, no matter how he begged for admittance. There was nothing for it but to run and grab any taxi that still dared to be on the streets.

As Kevyn sprinted down the alley he watched the small slice of the street he could see ahead. Though the window was small it still communicated the immediate panic that was sweeping all across it. Cars whizzed by at dangerous speeds, horns honking, tires squealing, bodies crunching against one another. Those on foot dashed down the sidewalk, taking wide swaths to avoid passing too near to any of their fellow pedestrians. They stared into one another’s eyes as they passed, trying to tell if this other might be a closet homicidal maniac about to spring loose.

That was the true horror of these episodes. The Police Department’s monitoring and enforcement network was state-of-the-art, and the dismantling of it had only ever been accomplished whenever a very powerful entity had wanted to enact a very dire evil, such as with the terrorist bombing of ’31. But beyond the grand act of terror there was the more common criminality as well. The human officers were simply too limited to hold back the tide of depravity that burst free whenever the dam came down.

There had been years of pent up felonies waiting to be committed. People had been silently seething: hating their bosses, jealous of ex-lovers, feeling a need to silence certain public voices… They had been burning with want, but been too afraid of the guaranteed repercussions that came in a world of constant monitoring and enforcement to do anything about it. Well, now in this brief window of opportunity every degenerate had just been given free license to do as they saw fit, and they were going to take it.

“Dani, flag down a taxi for me,” Kevyn shouted as he neared the end of the alley. “And alert me to any individuals approaching within a hundred yards of me.”

Confirmed. Removing transportation filter from your status.

Even before Kevyn reached the sidewalk he could tell he was in trouble, and as he came to the road, clutching a stitch in his side, his worst fears were confirmed. This was usually one of the busiest, most packed thoroughfares in all the city, and now it was entirely deserted. A few retreating taillights shone eight blocks down, a few doors were still slamming in the nearby apartment buildings, but there was no one near enough to offer him shelter from the storm.

Still, at least deserted was better than being approached by thugs.

“Dani, I…” Kevyn paused as his eyes lit on a wreck. Three cars had plowed into one another during the mad scramble and now all of them were deserted, their drivers having evidently continued their exodus on foot.

“Dani, see if we can buy any of these cars,” he ordered, sprinting over to them and trying to assess if they could still function. The Lexus that had been T-Boned looked pretty bent out of shape, and the Goat was so boxed in he wouldn’t be able to get it out. But maybe the Buick in the back?

The owner of the Lexus is willing to entertain an offer, Dani replied after completing her queries.

“What? No. What about–” Kevyn started at the sound of a loud bang just a few alleys away. “How much are they asking?”

91,670, standard price for a new Lexus Aria.

Kevyn cursed, but made his way around to the driver’s door. “Buy it!” he hissed, tugging at the door’s handle repeatedly.

A pause. And then Purchase completed.

The handle now opened for him and Kevyn dove into the car’s interior. Just as he pulled the door shut another bang sounded behind him and he spun around in the seat just in time to see a band of looters spill out of that nearby alley onto the street. One of them was behind the wheel of massive, black truck which pulled to the side of the road as the rest hopped out from the back and began moving down the street. They all held 3D-printed firearms and blasted away at any lockbox in sight, pillaging the contents inside.

Kevyn swore again and slammed the seat into its most reclined position, laying flat and hoping they hadn’t seen him. They would see the wreck and assume the owners had left it, wouldn’t they?

Sir, I am notifying you that individuals have entered the 100 yard radius you specified, and they are moving in your direction.

“I know,” Kevyn whispered. “Just keep me updated on their distance.”

Of course… 80 yards… 60 yards… 40…

Suddenly Kevyn had a horrifying epiphany. They wouldn’t leave the cars, they would loot them. How had he been so stupid? Panicky he flung the seat back to its upright position and punched the button for the ignition.

The car roared to life, mingled with shouts of surprise from the looters. Kevyn slammed the pedal to the floor and felt a rush of relief as the car lurched away from the rest of the twisted metal it had been enmeshed with. He was curving sharply to the right, though, and as he spun the wheel to correct it he found that the steering didn’t respond. The passenger side was too dented in for the vehicle to drive straight.

A building loomed up ahead and Kevyn was too slow reaching for the brakes. His vision turned white as the body-cushion sprung up around his form, suspending him in space and giving the accident that followed a strangely muffled crunching sound.

“Get off! Get off!” Kevyn shouted, punching the deflating cushion away as he scrambled for the car door. A thought occurred to him and he pulled open the glove box before exiting the car. A gun! A beautiful, glossy black handgun. He grabbed it and leapt out of the seat, pressing his back against the side of the car. The vehicle was a barrier between him and the looters, something he was grateful for as there came the sharp pinging of bullets hitting the car’s other side.

“Stay back!” he roared, shaking the gun where they could clearly see. He squeezed the trigger to fire back a warning shot but nothing happened.

Sir, you do not own this firearm…

“Buy it!”

And even if you did, you would require a weapon permit before its use would be authorized. All permits have been suspended while the Police Department’s security network is down.

Kevyn’s bluff didn’t seem to have impressed the looters very much either, and they were piling into the back of their truck as it rolled down the street, making its way towards him.

Kevyn ducked low and scrambled away towards the nearest alley, his heart thumping painfully in his chest. He reached the gap and gave a silent thanks that it was too narrow for their truck to follow him. It was just a slight gap between two apartment buildings on either side, a place filled mostly with refuse and broken appliances.

“Dani, are any of these apartments vacant?” he asked as he sprinted down the length of the alley towards the adjacent street.

There are numerous apartments available in each of these buildings, ranging in price from…

“Never mind.” He realized that these buildings would also be locked down with metal shutters, and he wouldn’t be able to enter them even if he was a patron.

A loud clap rang out as the stucco wall next to him burst from the impact of a bullet. Kevyn wheezed in shock and flung himself away towards the other side of the alley. The fact that the shot had been so close to his head was evidence of how terrible the looters’ aim was. They needed him alive, after all, if they wanted him to transfer his money into their accounts.

And there would be no negotiating with them if they did manage to catch up with him. In a world where every transfer was registered in a digital ledger it was also possible for each transaction to be reverted. The only guarantee a robber had that you wouldn’t later retrieve the money you gave them was if they left you dead. Their promise was always that the death would be much worse if you refused to transfer the money.

Kevyn continued his run, now bobbing and weaving as much as he could in the narrow alley, trying to throw off the looters’ aim.  The occasional shot clattered around his legs and feet, but thankfully none of them had found purchase yet. He was nearly to the adjacent street now, but no closer to safety.

“Where are we Dani?”

The corner of 13th Street and Mull.

“Where’s the nearest police precinct?”

1.1 miles.

1.1 miles. Normally that wouldn’t sound very far. Now it might as well be in another galaxy.

Kevyn’s eyes flashed as he spotted a mobile trash container at the end of his alley. It was the large, industrial kind, about chest height and wider than the entire alley. It was designed for mobility, with automated wheels on its bottom, so that it could be dropped off to private events and retrieved afterwards if needed.

“Dani, rent that trash box, then tell it to rotate around!”

The cost for immediate use comes with a significant fee…

“Buy it!”

There was a moment’s delay and then the container began to spin, forming a wall between the two apartment buildings just as Kevyn dove through the shrinking gap. There came a grinding sound as the edge of the container scraped along the building walls. It was too large to rotate fully, so instead it just wedged itself in as tightly as it would go.

Kevyn spun around and looked over the top of the trash container at his pursuants. They were still sprinting towards him, streaking to the barrier he had made, crouching low, and then leaping to clear it.

“Dani, open the trash’s lid,” he ordered coolly. The top sprang suddenly upwards and backwards, blocking his vision of the alley just as the looter’s eyes widened in surprise. Kevyn allowed himself a smile at the sound of the bodies slamming into the raised lid, followed by the cacophony of them tumbling back down into the container’s interior.

“Close the lid.” It slammed shut and he heard the muffled shouts of the angry looter’s banging their fists against their metal prison. “You can transfer control of the box back now. At whatever loss is fine. And tell the new owners they ought to–”

Before Kevyn could finish his snarky one-liner he jumped at a sudden squealing noise. Three blocks south of him the looter’s large truck spun around an empty intersection, then turned, and came barrelling towards him once more.

Kevyn grimaced and then began sprinting the opposite direction as quickly as he could. He wasn’t in the clear yet.

***

I mentioned on Monday how I wanted to write a story that would feature a small novelty, and then explore all of the implications that would branch out from that seed. When I started working on this story all I knew was that I wanted a world where currency had become entirely digital. I wanted to explore how ownership might be a more fluid notion when the changing of hands could be done without any hands at all, handled instead by the interfacing of different AIs.

The first implication of this was that obviously this story would need to be set in the future. A world like our world, but later. And with that came the setting, the style, and genre of the piece.

Next I drilled deeper into this idea of transactions being conducted entirely remotely. We already see the beginning of this through online shopping, but I wanted to take it a step further. What if every item was tagged with its owner, who could be remotely queried for a purchase? Every item could be tentatively for sale, so long as your offer was compelling enough.

With that in mind I wanted the story to have a reason for someone to be buying a great number of things, one right after the other. That brought up the image of someone running, trying to escape, and purchasing tools to aid him in that flight. Obviously that would mean our main character was in trouble, being pursued by some ne’er-do-wells.

And now that I was thinking about robbers, I started to wonder how that would even work in a future where every transaction could be tracked and reversed. The chillingly fatal implication of how this crime could still be effective presented itself, and I began piecing together the last parts the story.

Of course there is a little bit left to tell of it, and in the second half we are going to learn even more about the digital currency in this strange world. Before getting there, though, I want to examine a theme that has been present in all of my stories for this current series, one that has given each of them a particularly somber tone. Loss. It’s a weighty topic, and yet one that we each need to process in one way or another. I’d like to make the case that stories are a uniquely fitting way to do just that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain why. Until then have a wonderful weekend!

Three Variations on a Theme

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The Stone)

I had a dream that I was an explorer in a new land, traveling with a party of adventurers, all fair-haired, young, and beautiful. We were pioneers, pilgrims, fearlessly carving a new course through the world! I had the sense that we had traveled for a long while already, but that the real journey was only just now about to begin. For we were on a ledge overlooking a lush and green valley, and we were happily describing how we would go into this place, stake our claim, and forge our futures. One ambition would be succeeded by another until we would make this place shine as a beacon to the world, the star that dwelled on earth rather than the heavens above.

As the rest of our group continued with their enthusiasms I noticed a cave standing on the ledge a little bit back from the rest of us. Something deep was pulsating to me from there, and I found myself growing intensely curious. I informed my compatriots that I was going to see what was inside, and they cautioned me to hurry as they would not wait for long.

I entered the cave and found that it was not very deep at all. Just a few yards in and I came to its back, against which their lay a single, massive slab of onyx stone. It was from this stone that the pulsating rhythm emanated, a deeper frequency than I could actually hear, but which I could feel.

I was seized by a strange desire to possess the stone somehow. I reached to my side and drew my knife out, then proceeded to carve an image of myself into the rock. The stone was surprisingly soft, and easily received my image onto it. I was able to make my likeness with perfect ease, even down to some of the most minute details.

With a shock I realized I had been here in this cave for far longer than I had intended and I turned to rush back to my companions. But as I tried to move my legs I found that I could not. Glancing downwards I was shocked to find that my legs had changed, somehow they had been transfigured into motionless stone!

I tried to reach down, to pull my legs free of their earthy confines, but my arms would not extend down to them. I looked to my hands and they were as sculpted stone as well. As panic set in I tried to shout out for help, but no sound emerged from my mouth, for it was stone as well. I tried to look around for anything to save me, but my eyes would not shift, for they were stone as well. All of me was stone.

Though I could not move I was now somehow back on the ledge looking down into the valley. I was an immobile statue, yet still cognizant and aware. I saw my dear friends making their way down the path without me. They went into the valley and began to build their homes, their farms, their mills.

They developed and grew, they married one another, they had families and established a community. They were happy. They were successful. And not a one of them paused to wonder about me. Once every so often I saw one pause as if trying to remember something lost in the periphery, but then they would always shake their heads and go back about their day.

I wanted to cry. But rocks cannot cry.

 

The Mud)

I had a dream that I stood in a muddy field, grouped with a great mass of individuals who were carrying thick and long beams of wood to a far off destination. Every person was being assigned a single beam, their own personal cross to bear. They all received it, bore it on their shoulder, and then made their way with it down a grassy trail.

I received mine and felt the weight of it push me an inch down into the mud. It was about half as wide as a man, and long enough that its end dragged along the ground. I turned and began to follow the others, filing my way down that same long road. In time I became accustomed to the labor, and after shifting the beam around found a position that was stable. I peered ahead and saw that the way continued for quite a long while, round bends, up and down valleys, and at times the road would became narrow and pockmarked, though never entirely broken.

I made good progress, and even passed a few of the other journeyers along my way. I saw that the road would soon follow a hill that rose, curved right, and then dropped back down to our current level again. I had the realization that I could make better time by taking a shortcut through the field at the base of that hill, which would rejoin the road at the far end of the hill. And so I turned away from the main thoroughfare and ventured out over the unbroken ground.

At first the going was easier. The grass was less beaten down here and provided a firmer foundation for my heavy steps. As I continued, though, the grass became increasingly sparse and my feet began sinking into the soft earth. I had to pause and catch my breath as each step required extra effort to first dislodge from the vacuum of muck and mire.

I had extended about twenty yards out into the field before my first real misgivings began. The effort of lifting one foot out of the mud was driving the other a little deeper in return. Thus each step went further and further, and if that continued I soon wouldn’t be able to lift my way out of the mud at all. My beam was now slowing me like an anchor as well, its long end dragging through the soft earth with every step.

I began wondering about heading back the way I had come, but turning this my wooden keel seemed far more difficult than continuing, so I took a few more tentative steps. Perhaps I would find my way to a drier patch of ground soon?

But no, I had barely gone three paces more and I was already dropping all the way to my thighs. My last step never stopped sinking, it just kept descending slowly and so I floundered my legs, pumping them as if swimming upwards. It made it hard to keep my balance, especially with how the beam jostled and thudded across my back.

I lost my posture entirely and fell forwards. My hands flung out instinctively into the ground, the fingers splaying out to keep me stable.

There was a sense of dread growing that I refused to acknowledge. I had been stupid, but I was going to wriggle out of this and–

I realized that I was still continuing to sink. Even with all four of my limbs pressed into the ground the mud continued to crawl up  my skin, cold and sinister.

“NO!” I commanded, feeling the panic setting in. The weight of the beam was just too much. Until now I had had a sense that I mustn’t lose it, but now that didn’t matter. It was pressing me down, burying me in this mire and I started rolling my shoulders, trying to dislodge it.

It would not move. It was planted too firmly in the soil.

I tried to duck down and roll out from underneath it, but it dropped with me and only pinned me still lower. The scent of the moist earth was filling my nostrils and I felt it crawling up along my belly and chest.

Just my neck and head remained above the earth. My arms and legs churned violently through the mud to no end.

“No! NO!”

The cold sludge crept up my neck. Closed across my chin. I could taste it.

“NOOOOO–”

My cry became a gurgle as the filth flowed its way into my mouth, and filled my vision with darkness.

 

The Vulture)

I had a dream that I was at the bottom of a large crevice, a shaft in the rock that had plunged a few hundred feet down to where I stood. I had no knowledge in the dream of how I came to be here, but here I was and with no way out.

I did not even need to ascertain that there was no exit in this dream, somehow I knew it was so. There would be no scaling the rocky walls, no friend to lower me a rope. This was my world, though I was not discontent with that fact.

What was troubling to me, though, was the intense hunger that I was consumed with. These were no common hunger pang, either, they were sharper than any I have ever felt before. I felt that if I did not find any food soon I would collapse and perish.

Desperately I looked all about me for something to eat. At first I saw nothing, but then as I looked upwards I noticed an immense number of plump white birds roosting in the holes of the rock. They looked extremely fat and delicious, and I tried throwing stones to hit one of them. They were too quick for me, though, and too clever to ever stray far enough downwards where I might reach them with my hands.

In desperation I began rooting around in the dirt, looking for any mushrooms, and I was even considering trying to eat the moss that grew along the rock walls. Before I could, though, a single black vulture slowly wafted down the chasm and landed at my feet. It was a massive fowl, standing as high as my own waist. And in its beak it held one of those plump, white birds.

It looked me in the eye, then dropped the carcass at my feet, taking a half-step backwards as if to make clear that this was meant as an offering. It never took its eyes off of me, and there was something deeply unnerving in its look. There was a deep cunning in those eyes, a frightening intensity, and a hungry desire.

Even so, I wasn’t about to pass up my only opportunity for a proper meal, and so I cautiously lowered to a crouch, extended a single hand out, and took the gift. I never took my eyes off that vulture and it never took its off of me.

With our gazes still locked on one another I tore into the flesh of that white fowl and found it was ever more delicious than I had hoped. The meat was soft and succulent, and at the slightest pressure of my teeth it burst apart in a torrent of sweet flavors. Every succeeding morsel was the best I had ever tasted, and all too soon I held the last remaining bite of the meal between my fingertips.

Though I wanted to devour that morsel as well I knew I should be gracious, and so I placed it in front of the vulture that still waited at my feet. The vulture hissed, seized the piece and flung it to the side. Evidently it could not eat the flesh of the white birds itself, though it could catch them. With a sudden pity I realized it must be hungry as I.

The vulture hopped forward, extending its mouth out towards me expectantly. With that clarity that exists only in dreams I understood it meant for me to give it a bite of my own flesh. That was the meat that it could eat. Though that naturally gave me pause I knew that if I refused then the vulture would not bring me anymore food. And so I extended my arm and watched as it plunged its beak into my flesh. It tore off a chunk and swallowed the whole thing down at once, then happily flew away.

The next long while continued to pass like this. The vulture continued to bring me the birds, I ate them, and converted them into human flesh that the vulture could take from me. It was a horrible dependency we had for one another, I suppose, and yet I somehow found it deeply satisfying.

Unfortunately my ravenous appetite never was abated. Whenever I was not feasting I sat with my head turned upwards, waiting to feast. The vulture was a skilled hunter and soon learned to never cease in bringing me my next meal. At first I tried to ignore the fact that the number of those birds was beginning to diminish, but after only a matter of weeks I could not deny that my gluttony was driving us to ruin.

Where before every nook and cranny of the rocky walls had been overflowing with my winged dinners, now I could scarcely see so much as a feather in all that schism. The vulture struggled to find them, too, and more and more regularly it would come to me exhausted and empty-beaked. It would still approach me for its regularly-scheduled feeding, but I would kick at it and drive it away.

“You can never have anything from me until it you have made payment first!” I would shout at its retreating form.

When it did find food for me I now devoured the entire thing in haste and was left all the more dissatisfied for having tasted so little… with so long to go before I would eat again. I grew faint and weary, and took to sleeping while I waited for the vulture to return.

One time I awoke to see it looming before me, slowly approaching with that same sinister glint in its eye. It paused when it had seen that I had awoken, but after a moment continued forward again. I tried to lift my hand to shake my fist at it but I found my arm would not move. I tried to kick out at it but my leg refused to answer.

I glanced downwards and saw all of the vulture’s bite marks up and down my body. I realized it had systematically weakened my sinews, devoured my muscles, damaged my nerves. All to the point that I now lacked any power to fend it off. It was in that moment I realized my body was more the vulture’s than my own any more.

And still it came forward.

***

On Monday I mentioned that myths commonly abstract a story’s themes, which signals to the reader that its topics are universal principles rather than individual narratives. It’s important to do that early in the myth, so that the reader understands the proper frame of mind to read from.

In each of today’s piece my intention was to present a sequence of events that was too bizarre to be taken at face value. I did things like beginning each by saying it was a “dream,” I made strong use of supernatural events, I limited the use of character and plot, and I used a narrative voice that was emotionally distant from the intensity of the moments being described.

Most commonly when a reader picks up a new story the main driving question that pushes them through to the end is “what happens next?” But by utilizing these specific tactics I hoped to change that question into something more like “what is this about?” Thus the different experience presented in a myth has something to do with how the writer writes, but also in how a reader reads.

The other thing I wanted to accomplish with this piece was present the same theme in three different ways. There are shared elements between the details of each, such as a solitary central character and a setting based in nature, but what ties them together most strongly is the themes that they all share. Each features a character with initial promise, who encounters something new or strange (a slab of rock, an inviting field of mud, a vulture), and who ultimately loses their way. These are myths about losing one’s place, of being distracted from the right way, of being overwhelmed, and of being consigned to a destruction.

These are sobering ideas, and frankly myths often are. Even the ones that are happy tend to be happy with a heaviness. There just seems to be little point in engaging the reader’s intuition to teach a principle, unless it is a principle that carries some weight.

Before closing, I need to mention one other element shared in these stories: the way that each of them introduces the reader to a new idea and then asks them to follow the logical continuation of that novelty. In fact this is a tool of story-writing that I’ve been using in all of my pieces for this current series. Come back on Monday where we’ll examine this more fully, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

The Sweet Bay Tree

photography of tree
Photo by Yugal Srivastava on Pexels.com

It was a bright Spring morning the day they brought the Sweet Bay tree into the open study area. It was a massive room, featuring thousands of square feet in open floor space, with another fifteen yards stretching vertically before being capped off by a wide glass ceiling that ran the whole length of it.

It was a multi-purpose room, one commonly scattered with tables and chairs for the University students to study at during the days, but all of which could be folded up and carted away with ease. It had played host to dances, career fairs, blood drives, charity auctions and more. Many-a-time it had been reserved for wedding receptions, and once had housed the funeral services when one of the Deans had passed way. A collapsible stage could be erected at one end for music and dance performances. It had seen debates, clubs, and religious ceremonies.

Of course the Sweet Bay tree did not yet know any of these things. It’s amazement as it was wheeled through the double doors was due simply to the sheer magnitude of the place. It was awed at the awesome grandeur on display, the architectural wonder of 400,000 cubic feet, all sustained without a single supporting pillar to break that space.

Somehow the artificiality of the room made it seem bigger. Naturally the tree was natively from the open outdoors, yet the openness there was too great to be appreciated. One does not marvel at a breadth unless one can see both ends of it, and so can comprehend it.

If the Sweet Bay tree felt honored to be put into a room so large, it swelled all the more with pride when it beheld the vessel the workers now lowered it into. A massive pot that lay a full twelve feet across and six feet deep! Perhaps the tree felt a little silly being so dwarfed by its home, but it knew this grand base had been selected with the intention that it would grow to fill it. It meant the workers intended this tree to become the central piece of the room’s ornamentation.

And so, after the workers had finished patting the soil around the tree’s roots, and threaded the water hose through a hole in the back of the pot, and added a layer of shredded bark as a skirt around its trunk, and then left for the rest of the days duties–then the tree unfurled itself and drank deeply from the soil and relished in a sense of fullness and fatness.

“Hello there,” a neighboring fern said. “Looks like they’ve given you the place of honor!”

“Why thank you,” the Sweet Bay tree returned graciously. “Yes, I am quite touched. It certainly is a thrill to come and visit you all. I only hope I’ll be able to measure up to everyone’s expectations.”

“I’m sure you will. What’s your name, by the way?”

“Sweet Bay tree number four on the Eastern side.”

“Eastern side of what?”

“Why the Eastern side of the Administration Building, of course, that’s where I’m stationed.”

“Oh…” the fern said awkwardly. “But aren’t you stationed here now?”

“Oh that’s very kind of you,” the Sweet Bay tree laughed. “I am, as I said, thrilled to come and visit. But I couldn’t possibly give up my station, I am an essential part of the tree-line there after all.”

“Well…” the fern started to say, but didn’t know how to politely end its sentence and so did not.

The conversation with the fern had made the Sweet Bay tree all the more anxious to measure up to the expectations that had been placed upon it. The last thing it wanted to hear was people tutting that it was a disappointment to the place.

Focusing its power inwards the tree began to will itself to new heights. To its delight it felt that the growth came quite easily. The tree was constantly sustained with a diet of nutrient-rich soil, regularly pruned to promote upward growth, and positioned under the glass ceiling so as to receive the most hours of bright sunlight possible.

In a matter of only a few years, which really is no time at all to a tree, the Sweet Bay had multiplied itself by many orders of magnitude, swelling to fill its pot and expanding to brush its uppermost leaves along the glass of  the ceiling. Those higher branches would be trimmed, but it always grew them back as a statement to the workers that it was doing its part in the role they had given it.

The Sweet Bay was not at all disappointed for attention, either. It swelled with pride each time a new student entered the room and remarked on how that impressive tree stood supreme in all that space.

“I didn’t know you could grow a full-sized tree indoors!” they often said in awe, and the Sweet Bay tree smiled down at them from its lofty perch.

Almost every occasion held in the room now utilized it as the centerpiece of its decorations. Lights wound up its trunk on Christmas and fake coconuts hung from its branches for luaus. There were black shrouds whenever someone important died, white lace whenever someone got married, and pink ribbons for cancer awareness.

The Sweet Bay tree was very pleased to serve and no one questioned that it did its part well. Still, with every passing year it found itself more and more anxious to know what was happening to its home on the eastern side of the Administration Building.

Any time a new plant was brought in it would ask them if they knew that area of the college campus exterior. Most of the time they did not, having instead been brought from greenhouses and nurseries far removed from the University. One day, though, a young poplar was brought in that had been stationed just south of the Sweet Bay tree’s home.

“The Administration Building? Yes, I know it. Had a fine view of it from the Library where they kept me.”

“Oh wonderful!” the Sweet Bay tree sighed in relief. “Tell me, how are things there? I suspect Sweet Bay trees number three and number five are missing me terribly?”

“Sweet Bay trees number three and number five? I don’t believe I know them.”

“Oh, but of course you do. Why they must be nearly as tall me now. Probably not quite as tall, but nearly.”

“Were they near to the vinca?”

“No, the vinca is on the southern side. These were on the eastern.”

“Ah, that explains it. They tore up that whole side and paved it over with a new parking lot. I didn’t see it happen, but some of the older trees told me about it.”

“They…what?!”

“Yeah, the demand for parking has really gone up of late. Doesn’t look anything like it used to.”

“But I–I don’t understand. Why would they do that? It’s quite a waste seeing as they’ll just have to change everything back to how it was… so that they’ll be ready when they return me there.”

“How’s that?”

“I mean why pave over a lovely green lawn when you’re just going to have to put the lawn back sooner or later?”

“Well…I mean…” the poplar stumbled awkwardly to find a tactful way to explain itself. “Sweet Bay trees three and five are gone. You understand? Not transplanted elsewhere from what I heard…gone. So I don’t think they were planning to change things back to how they were again.”

“Oh, of course,” the Sweet Bay tree tutted as if explaining something basic to a child, and not at all concerned about the chopping up of its brethren. “I’m not too shocked that they won’t be coming back. You didn’t see them after all, but quite frankly they were never anything so special as me. That’s why they brought me over here to liven up the room for a bit after all. Because I was the best! So of course they’re going to want me come back there. And when I do come back, I don’t intend to be planted in an inch less of lawn!”

“Ah…well…alright then!”

Despite the Sweet Bay tree’s show of confidence, it seemed to have been unnerved by something in that conversation with the young poplar. It began brooding and festering, wondering aloud why it was taking so long for the workers to return it to its station. It simply didn’t make sense!

The tree scolded those workers when they came to prune it and demanded answers from them, but of course they couldn’t understand any of that rustling. They just continued their regular work, making the Sweet Bay tree the perfect, beautiful centerpiece to this grand, impressive room.

Except that the room didn’t seem nearly so impressive to the tree as it once had. The Sweet Bay tree wasn’t nearly so small as when it had been brought in here, and it had long lost its sense of awe for the space. No doubt a large part of that had to do with being as tall as the entire room, for nothing seems so grand once you are able to fill an entire dimension of it. It would scratch its twigs along the glass canopy that defined the extent of its world, transparent enough to tease a world without limits beyond, but forever denying access to it. This room that had once been a throne was now nothing more than an ornate prison.

All the other plants learned not to broach the subject with the Sweet Bay tree. It was entirely unwilling to hear anything about being “replaced” or “forgotten.” And so they all stood silent as it rambled on about the warm summer breeze, the snowy blankets on the field, the buzzing of bees, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of chipmunks, the refreshing rain, the crunching of dead leaves, the flowery scents, the churning of the earth, and the taste of the wild wafting down from the nearby mountains.

One day a trimmed bush was brought into the room and placed right next to the Sweet Bay tree. As with all newcomers the tree swayed wistfully towards it and asked its tired, old question.

“Have you seen the Administration Building? Friend?”

“Hmm, well which one do you mean now? The old one or the new one?”

“Old one? What on earth do you mean?”

“Well they tore down that old one with the Library, didn’t they? Put up that new football stadium instead.”

“A… football stadium?”

“Yes, a sight to behold really! Thousands of tons of steel and stone splayed out over everything that used to be the Administration Building and the Library. With a massive parking garage hulking by its side, even. I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but it makes a place like this feel very small.”

“But…why would they do that? They’ll never be able to get things back to the way they were in time!” The Sweet Bay tree was swaying very laboriously now, as though it might faint from shock. “Where are they going to put me then? It just–it just doesn’t make any sense.”

The bush felt quite awkward and started to shrink back, but suddenly the Sweet Bay tree rounded on it with a sudden fury.

“You! Tell me! Have you heard any word of a new field for Sweet Bay trees? Any word of starting a grove for outdoor studying? Any mention of planting some trees to shore up the river’s edge?”

“I–no, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Has no one said when they’re going to take me out of this miserable place?!”

“You don’t…like it here?”

“It’s my prison!” The Sweet Bay tree fell to weeping. “But still I know they will get me out some day soon. They have to. They just can’t be leaving me here forever.”

For a moment the bush intended to avoid stating the obvious, just as every other plant had done. But then it felt it would be more cruel to leave the Sweet Bay tree hanging onto a vain hope.

“But…how will they get you out?”

“What’s that?” the tree snapped out of its self-pitying reverie.

“How would they even be able to get you out of this room?”

“The door, obviously! The same way I came in.”

“You don’t fit.”

“Well of course I–” a moment of horror swept across the tree. It had been staring down at the doors as it spoke. Down at them! They were so far beneath it, so distant, so small a matrix to pass through. Of course it had fit through them once when it had been a sapling. But now…now the only way out was in pieces.

“When did that happen?” the tree mumbled in shock. “Why did I just keep growing? Why didn’t I stop? What am I going to… what am I supposed to…. Wh–why?”

All the other plants in the room drew themselves as far away as their trunks and stems allowed, trying to grant the poor Sweet Bay tree a respectful moment of silence as its entire world collapsed.

***

I promised on Monday that I would try to write a story that began with its own ending. From the moment the Sweet Bay tree came into the room its story had reached its conclusion, and all that followed was merely waiting for it to realize that simple fact.

But of course, in this long ending there is also another story that is playing out. It isn’t the story of how the tree came to its final destination, it is the one of how it came to accept it. I wrote this story as an examination of a phenomenon I’ve noticed when people experience sudden, drastic changes to life.

These sharp turns occur in a single moment, and the course of our future is instantaneously changed. But then there is usually a considerable delay before our expectations shift to match up with that new destiny. In spite of all reason and sensibility, it can be very hard to let  go of how we thought things were going to be.

I realize it is a strange thing we do, trying to represent very human notions with very non-human subjects. But anthropomorphized characters and allegory have been parts of story-telling since longer than the Tortoise and the Hare. On Monday I’d like to take a closer look into why we do this sort of abstraction. Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll see you then.

Phiserman: Part Three

photo of house during daytime
Photo by Sarah Eaton on Pexels.com

Part 1

Part 2

The trick is going to be maintaining an attitude of complete nonchalance. It will be the middle of the day and that means any neighbor or passerby might see me at any moment. If they see me sneaking glances to each side and wearing a dark hoodie over my head they’ll be tipped off immediately that something is wrong. If, on the other hand, I am seen striding up to the door like I owned the place they will just think I am some out-of-town uncle that has come for a visit. Hopefully they will think that anyway. There’s no denying that there is a very real danger in all of this. But then again, if there wasn’t real danger it wouldn’t be so appealing in the first place, now would it?

And so here I am, driving up to 17462 Oak Lane right at noon. It’s such a quiet, ideal sunny day and I park smack in the middle of their driveway like I don’t have a care in the world. I allow myself one more glance down either side of the street and take a steeling breath. It’s now or never.

I don’t remember deciding to pull the trigger, but suddenly I’m hearing the sound of my door opening and the feel of my feet strolling down the cement. I fish in my pocket for my make-shift key, scraping my finger along its teeth to vent my anxiety. Though I’ve forced a mask of calmness over my face my heart is racing as though I’ve just run ten miles. My hand is trembling as I lift the key out and slowly insert it into the lock.

Please work.

Please don’t.

Click! The lock opens with perfect ease. I exhale a deep sigh as I push my way through the front door and bolt the door behind me. I close my eyes and strain my ears, listening for any sound of movement within, though I already know that I’m alone. I remind myself that I’ve been far too thorough in my research to be caught by surprise by anything, and so the key goes back into my pocket and the latex gloves come out. I suit up each hand and scan the house again, taking in the scene.

It’s a small, one-story affair. Several decades old, and you can see it in the dated wallpaper and siding. Even so, it’s been well-cleaned and well-cared for. There’s pictures along the wall, faces I’m already well-familiar with. I stroll casually past the entrance area and into the living room. There’s a light on the blu-ray player beneath the tv and I walk over and press the eject button, curious to see what the last movie they watched last night was.

Way of the Dragon.

An involuntary memory forces its way into my mind.

“But why would Chuck Norris choose a role where he gets beat?” I’m asking.

“Well, you gotta remember this was before Walker, Texas Ranger,” Dad is explaining. “He wasn’t such a big star yet, so he was gonna do whatever role he could.”

I shake my head. “It’s weird.”

“I do like how he looks in this one,” Dad grinned. “Without his beard on he’s pretty similar to me, don’t you think?”

“But he’s the badguy here!”

“So?”

“Naw, Dad, you’re Bruce Lee!”

Dad laughs. It isn’t particularly mirthful. “And how can you tell me who I am, kid, when you can’t even tell me who you are or what you want to do?”

He’s jabbing his thumb at the summer camp brochures on the table. He brought them home for me to choose where I want to head out to this weekend.

“I just–none of them sound like the sort of things I want to do,” I say slowly, not wanting to retread this argument.

“Oh yeah? And what does sound like the sort of thing you want to do?”

“I’d rather just be with you this summer!” I suggest brightly. “We could just watch movies like this all day.”

“I told you, I have to go on a trip of my own this summer.”

“I could come with you,” I say quietly.

His face turns cold. He doesn’t try to explain, he just speaks with a grim finality in his voice. “No. You couldn’t.”

My throat is tight and the blood is pumping in my ears. I’m spinning on the spot, looking for something. I don’t know what, but I know it when I see it. One of those family pictures is on the mantle, a small piece of them smiling out on a grassy hill in a dark wooden frame. I don’t look at it so much as through it. I grip it with my hands and hold it a little lower than my chest, staring dead ahead as my arms twist. Long, slow, but powerful. The wood creaks, the glass cracks, and at last the whole thing gives way and bursts apart with a snap. I let go and the various pieces clatter to the floor.

Believe it or not, never in all my planning did I ask myself what I was going to be doing once I got in here. I don’t need their money or valuables, I don’t particularly care to trash the place any more than the one picture I’ve broken. Whenever I hack people I don’t ever drain their bank accounts or sell their information. I just enjoy the sense of knowing them.

I guess that was my general intention here, too, but now I want to do a little bit more. I want to take a memento, and also I want to scare these people. I want them to know I was here and have them fear what I might have done, though I won’t have done anything at all. I’ve already broken their picture, but I scour the surroundings for something else. Something big, something prominent, something personal. Something that has been placed very deliberately, something that couldn’t have just fallen down and rolled under the sofa. Something that the absence of will immediately stand out like a sore thumb.

And then I see it. There’s a nanny cam staring directly at me from the mantle.

How did I miss it when I came in here? How did I not prepare for this? I really didn’t think that they would have one.

Why not?

I don’t know…I guess I just wanted them not to. So much so that I felt they couldn’t possibly. Stupid as it sounds, I’m completely frozen in space for a moment. The only movement is my hand slowly raising to touch my open, exposed face. I didn’t want anyone to suspect me as I entered the place, but why not keep a mask in my pocket to wear once I had closed the front door?!

My instinct is to seize the camera and smash it to pieces, as well as any computer or tablet in this home it might be streaming data to. But with it’s sleek, angular, gray-and-white design I can tell this is a modern device, one that no doubt supports motion-tracking and automated alerts pushed to a user’s phone.

They already know that I’m here.

I manage to break the spell I’m under and scramble for the front door. As I wrench the doorknob and swing the door open I see the policeman stepping out of his car. He hadn’t had his sirens on, evidently intending to catch me unawares. The man is startled by my sudden appearance, and I instinctively slam the door back shut.

I pelt to the back of the house, roving my eyes in search of a door out the back. There, in the kitchen. I lunge for it, twisting the knob before realizing that the bolt is still holding it fast.

Stupid!

I fumble with the lock, hearing myself crying as my chest heaves with fear. I finally jerk the door open just as I hear the front door being flung open with a smash.

“Stop. Now!”

Needless to say I ignore the commanding voice calling from behind as I sprint out of the house and across the small yard to the six-foot chainlink fence separating their property from the neighbors’ place. I don’t try to fit my toes in the narrow gaps, instead just kicking forwards and upwards as I half-pull half-roll myself over the fence, getting a few scrapes in the process.

They’ve already seen your face! And you’ve left your car back there!

None of that matters. I’ll figure it out later. Somehow.

I hear the heavy footsteps behind me but refuse to look over my shoulder. The more I see the officer more real he’ll be. I hear the clatter of him scrambling over the fence as I sprint around the neighbor’s house to their front-yard, exiting onto the next street and peeling off to the right.

It’s still an ideal, sunny day in modern suburbia and I feel myself cowering like a wild animal at being so exposed out in the open. My legs are shaking, threatening to turn into molten jelly at any moment.

“Please!” I wheeze out between sobs. “Pleeeease!”

I just have to get past this. I just have to get clear. If it takes everything I’ve got, I just have to escape. I’ll be able to work it all out after that, I’ll tackle each problem systematically and one-at-a-time. But I just have to lose this cop.

The click of a clasp being unbuttoned.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!”

It honestly never even occurs to me whether he might be lying. I just feel a pure and violent terror seize my chest, gripping my heart like I’ve never experienced before. I throw my hands up in the air and spin on the spot, my voice breaking and warbling as I splutter out my pleas.

“I’ll stop, I’ll stop! Just please don’t–”

He doesn’t slow one bit in his run. Officer Daley’s name badge fills my vision as he goes horizontal and t-bone’s me right in the chest. The top of his head catches my jaw and I see a stream of blood curving through the air in slow motion as I become weightless in space. He’s knocked more wind out of my lungs than I ever knew could fit in there, and so there is no noise to the crying my throat is trying to make. I spin backwards, hurtling towards the pavement, anticipating the impact that cannot be denied.

“Alright then, Dad” I say slowly, trying to keep the trembling out of my voice. “You tell me. Where should I go this summer?”

“Naw kid, that’s not for me to choose.”

“Sure it is. You want me to go, so you can decide where.”

“You gotta decide what you want for yourself.”

“But only from what you decide I can choose from?”

Both our voices have been getting louder and faster. Half in anger, half in exasperation. The tension of unspoken truths mounting. Finally Dad stops to knead his brow heavily.

“This summer is going to be hard on all of us, Terry. I’m sorry. Really I am. But I’ve got to figure stuff out, and I need to do that alone. I need to…well…find out who I am.”

I’m quiet, staring blankly through the floor. “You know Dad, you were right earlier. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be either.”

“Hey, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that–“

“No, it’s alright. It’s true…. Dad, can you do me one thing before you go?”

“Sure kid.”

“Who am I?”

“C’mon, that’s not fair. I just said, I’m still trying to figure out who I am, I’m not the person to tell you about yourself.”

“But you’re my dad. Just tell me what you think even if you don’t know. You don’t have to be right. I just need to know what you think.”

The tears were streaming from my eyes then, too. Dad was frowning, shaking his head at the responsibility.

“I will. Okay? Let me get myself sorted out and then when I come back I’ll tell you. It’ll be something you can look forward to when I return.”

“You promise?”

“Yeah.”

I rub the tears away with my grubby hand. “Daddy… I love you, y’know?”

“Sure, kid. I know you do.”

You may crush me as hard as you wish, Officer Daley.

***

 

As I suggested on Monday, unreliable narrators have the power to divulge as much from what they aren’t saying as what they are. I tried to craft Phisherman so that observant readers would be able to realize that not everything was adding up with our narrator. My hope then was that they would start reading between the lines to extract the missing pieces, and picking up on little clues.

There were things like his obsession with consuming other peoples’ identities, his unwillingness to define his own, and his negative perspective of men. All of these were supposed to tease that he bore some wound related to a father figure and his own role in life. Although the full details of that wounding would have been impossible to predict exactly, hopefully when finally witnessed it felt consistent with what had been suggested before. The ways his father left him will hopefully match up with the personality we see in him now.

Also, a week before Monday, I posted about how characters can be portrayed as one-dimensional villains at the outset, and then given a sympathetic backstory to evolve them later on. Obviously Jake (or should we call him Terry?) is doing something horrible when fate finally catches up to him, and he is deserving of all the legal action that is sure to follow.

And yet I do hope he also comes across as pitiable. I hope that the readers feel that the way he has become makes sense, even if it cannot be justified. This is actually an essential groundwork for any time a villain in a story is meant to become a hero. Once a character is understood, they are also redeemable.

It was in reaching this point of inflection that I ultimately decided the story was ready to close. I knew that Terry was stuck in an unhealthy rut at the outset of this story, and I wanted to get him to where he finally had a choice again. In this story we see him hitting rock bottom and what will follow could be either a spiraling demise or the beginnings of turning over a new leaf. Either way, that would be another story in and of itself, the story of the hacker “Jake” has reached its end.

Even so, I’m sure there are those that would rather have had the story go further into what happens next for Terry. This brings up a common question in writing a story: when exactly should it end? I’ll explore this question in my post on Monday. Come back then to chime in with your own takes on the matter, I’ll see you there.

Phisherman: Part Two

two black and brass colored keys with fob
Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

Part 1

Less than a week after I found Pete I found these keys. To be clear, I’m not always looking for trouble… but I will acknowledge it anytime it comes to me on its own. I’m just finishing up with my run, twelve laps around the local park, when I see something glinting at me from one of the benches. It’s keys: a ring with about three on them. House. Car. Something else, too.

I ignore them, continuing my jog as I turn this fact over in my mind. On the surface nothing immediate presents itself, but there’s no denying that there is a power here. What can be done with that, though? It’s just a set of random keys. Finding anything that they unlocked would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Even as I’m thinking that thought another part of my mind is pointing out that this is a small and local park. Pretty much no one ever drives here, they walk. Whoever left these is almost definitely local. Sure, there’s a couple hundred homes in the surrounding neighborhood, but already the haystack is getting smaller.

And while that thought is finishing its course my eyes are already roving. How many people are here right now? A young couple there…man and his dog there…that’s it. Doubtful the keys belong to any of them, if so they would have kept them pocketed while out on the lawn, not laying out on a bench. The sun is setting and all of them will be leaving soon. The place will be vacant.

Oh right, the sun is setting… so people will be going to sleep. That means the owner is probably already back home. They somehow got back in their house without realizing they had lost the keys? Could be. If a couple had come together, each with their own set of keys, then they might not notice if only one set disappeared. People get distracted by all sorts of things. Or maybe the went back into the house through the garage instead of the front door. Or maybe they have noticed the missing keys and are searching for them, but they visited too many places today and aren’t sure exactly where they left them. In any case, after a certain hour no one will be looking for these…

But again, what would I do with them? A hundred homes is still a lot. The car key will probably have a logo on it. If I know that I’m looking for a Honda or a Toyota I can start reducing candidates. Unless the car is in its garage…

Wait a second. Was it just a key, or a fob? I decide to run one more lap, all to once more jog past the keys. I come up to them and surreptitiously glance at them out of the corner of my eye. Fob! That’s definitely a key fob! And that means it has a lock button, and that means pressing it within a certain radius of its matching car results in it giving a little toot.

If my mind was racing before it’s full-on sprinting now.

What on earth are you going on about? I ask myself. You can’t break into a house!

Of course not, this is just a thought experiment, I protest. I just want to know what would be possible.

What would be possible?

Find the house, setup a camera watching the front door and garage, learn their comings and goings, enter when the house is vacant.

Stop! You’d be caught. You’d get arrested.

This is all just theory, remember? But you’re right, in this theory I would need some latex gloves, a hoodie and a mask. Also you would need to check for a doorbell camera.

The voice of reason insists that we’re going to too dangerous of places and need to leave. I peel away from the park and head for home. It doesn’t matter where I go physically, though, because my mind is still firmly back there. From my apartment I happen to have a great view of that park and I find myself constantly returning to my window, checking to see if anyone is going to retrieve the keys. No one ever comes.

During my restless pacing the sun completely sets. It’s night. People will be going to bed before long. I open my laptop and try to do some work, but after rereading the same email six times without paying it any attention I open a few new tabs on my browser.

I mean, are there even any cameras that could run all day on battery and remain inconspicuous?

bestbuy.com
gopro.com
bhphotovideo.com

In case you were wondering, turns out it is feasible, and there’s even a some options just waiting for me at a few of the local stores.

I get up, grab my keys, and head out into the night. I wouldn’t say that I have made a decision, more so I just stopped resisting the inevitable.

I’m in no particular rush, though, I’ve still got a few hours until the absolute dead of night and I’m sure not going to check on the keys until then. I get a cheap, greasy dinner from Taco Bell and then start my shopping. I take my time, comparing options and searching for DIY enhancements on my phone.

I end up deciding to get a common dash cam. They’re small, subtle, and can be rigged to run off a battery pack pretty easily. I select an RSC Nano. This model will take an SD card for storage, up to 64 gigs, which should hold as much as 8 hours of footage if it records at 17Mbps. Most importantly it can connect to my phone through an app and allow me to download the footage from my car while parked on the street. I don’t want to risk being seen tampering with this camera each day. That download is sure to take a while, but hopefully I’ll be able to scope out a subtle area once I see the place.

Next I go to a grocery store for matches, a can of beans, and a pair of scissors sharp enough to cut metal. Thanks to my friends at YouTube I’ve learned this is all I need to make a copy of a key.

I go home and watch some television to while away the last hour. I’m not paying any attention to it, though, and I might as well just switch it off and stare at the clock. At last it reads 1 AM, the time I’ve decided it’s safe to go out.

A few long, steadying breaths, then I leave into the night.

My heart is racing faster than it did during my entire run this afternoon. My hands are clammy and I keep switching them from swinging at my sides to shoved into my pockets. Down the street, to the park, up to the bench. I reach down, grab the keys in one smooth motion, and hurriedly duck back out of the light cast by the streetlamp above.

In the darkness I peer at the key fob and can just make out the white little logos on the buttons. I place my thumb over the one to lock the car and make for the nearest row of houses. I walk down the sidewalk on one side of the street, pressing the fob button as I pass each house. Then I cross over to the other side and do the same coming back the other way. Then I move on to the next street.

To help me pass the time I start doing the math in my head. It’s taking about six minutes to do both sides of a street. Ten streets an hour. I could keep this up until four, that would cover thirty streets. Seven-and-a-half blocks. Obviously at some point I’ve got to call it quits, but at that rate I’d say two, maybe three nights at most and I could cover the entire surrounding neighborhood.

Unless they really were from out-of-town. They might have been visiting family around here, they could have been geocaching, they could have…

Boop! Boop!

My heart skips a full three beats at the unmistakable chime of a car sounding from the garage nearest me. I start to walk away, then wonder if it might have been a coincidence. I push the lock button again.

Boop! Boop!

My ears are buzzing from all the blood pounding through my head as I resume my walking. Still I have the presence of mind to read the number off of the mailbox: 17462. I walk faster, straining to hear any noises coming from the house. The bedrooms would have been decently removed from the garage, further than a car beep would have been heard from… Right?

To my great relief nothing stirs from the home all the while as I come to the intersection of the next street and make a sharp turn, noting the name of the road I’ve just left: Oak Lane. I resist the urge to run. Though no one else is out at this time I don’t want to risk drawing attention to myself. I do power-walk, though, winding through one turn after another as if I’m being followed. In fact I do look over my shoulder a few times, but all that’s there is my shadow.

Every extra second out here is just that much more risk, and I won’t be able to breathe fully until I am done with this night.

I glide across an intersection to my apartment building and now I allow myself a sprint up the steps to my flat. I bolt the door, lock the knob, and slide the chain. I punch 17462 Oak Lane into a text editor my phone and then pull the keys out of my pocket. Car key, house key, gym key. I grip the house key as I move over to the kitchen table where the matches, scissors, tape, and metal ends of the can of beans are already waiting.

I light a match and heat up the key, then press it into the tape, transferring a perfect image of it onto it the clear plastic. That gets laid flat against the metal from the can, and using my scissors I carefully cut out the exact same shape. I do this a second time, stacking the two copy-keys on top of each other so that they are a similar thickness to the original. I press them down on the original house key, pressing firmly with my fingers until the groove that runs down its side is transferred over as well.

There. All that’s left is to return everything back to the way it was before, to remove any cause for suspicion or fear. I pocket the keys and grab a handkerchief, then stride back out into the night. Again I power-walk the whole way to the park, and as I go I vigorously rub the keys down with the handkerchief, obliterating any trace of fingerprints on them. It’s probably an unnecessary precaution, but I intend to reduce the risk as far as I possibly can…aside, you know, from actually not following through with this plan.

I reach that fateful park bench and deposit the keys silently in the same spot where I found them. One last time I go back to the apartment complex, up the steps, through the door, lock all of the locks, and at long last I lean against the wall and let out the breath I’ve been holding all night long.

Suddenly I feel tired, exhausted even, and I leave for bed. Everything else can wait until tomorrow.

*

The next day I return to the park under the guise of another run. I’m excited when I see that the keys have been removed from the park bench. It could be that someone else stole them or tried to find the owners, but I like to hope that the people at 17462 Oak Lane woke up the next day, discovered they were missing, retrieved them, and believe the whole incident was brief enough that it isn’t worth changing the locks on their door. Everything depends on that, and I’d say there’s a decent chance of it being true.

After the park I take a drive around the town, slowly rolling by the home in question. I scope out the area, noting a couple of bushes belonging to the neighbor across the street. A camera could be easily hidden in there with a wide enough view to track both the front door and the garage. I also take note of the cars parked along the sides of the street. There’s enough of them that it shouldn’t stand out too much when I join them to download the footage to my phone. Finally I also peer up at the front entrance and check for a doorbell camera. There is none.

Everything is working out perfectly for me. Or, when I consider how idiotic this entire scheme is, perhaps I should say working perfectly against me. Either way, I’m back on that street at 1 AM the next night, burying my camera in the bushes.

And now the routine begins. Early every morning I drive down the street, open the camera’s app, and tell it to start recording. Late in the evening I come back and download the footage, then go home to scrub through it, taking notes of everything I see.

On the very first day I become fully acquainted with the occupants of the house. Husband, wife, two daughters. Middle class, young family. The father seems to work in some office, based off of the casual-nice fare he always wears when he leaves at 7:47-ish each weekday. A little less than an hour later the wife leaves with the two daughters in tow and wearing scrubs. Presumably she drops them off at school and then goes to work at the hospital, coming back about 3:30, with the husband following a couple hours after that.

Once again: perfect.

The house is completely vacated all day long every weekday. I verify this over a few more days, of course, but there’s never any variation. I even check the weekend footage to verify that they don’t ever come out on a walk with some invalid that’s otherwise being cooped up indoors. All clear on that front. I never catch a glimpse of a dog or a cat, either.

All I have to do is pick a day.

But is that necessary? Haven’t you already consumed them enough? There’s a lot to glean about them from the video already.

Hmm, interesting question. What of these people themselves? Who are they? What makes them tick? What are their aspirations? Why do they live here? Why do they have two kids and not more or less? Why do they drive the two old Honda Civics that they do and not something else? Why do they forget their keys at parks?… I can observe a lot of things about them, but what of them?

The two daughters appear to be about six and eight. If they were the same age you would definitely think they were twins. Both with blond hair down to their shoulders and chubby cheeks. Well-fed, well-dressed, healthy. Well-liked, too, judging from all the friends that came to visit on Saturday. Comfortable, but not so fancy as to be stuck-up. They’re probably nice girls.

The mother is, in a word, tired. She’s yawning every time she rolls out in the morning, she’s rubbing her eyes when she comes home in the afternoon. No doubt she uses those few hours at the end of the day taking care of all the housework: cooking dinner, doing laundry, cleaning, etc. Physically…she’s not really my type, but I mean we’re talking a suburban mom here, what did you expect? Still… I suppose she’s pretty in her own way.

I don’t think the father likes his office job very much. When he leaves in the morning he always procrastinates, rushing back into the house for some forgotten item until eventually he has to race out in a hurry to not be late. He appears educated and capable enough to give his family a bigger home, so I can only assume it is his lack of passion at work that is holding him back. Whenever he comes home he looks so much more alive than when he leaves, and his daughters are always bounding out the door to meet him. They’re really happy when he comes home.

That still doesn’t mean he isn’t going to leave you one day, girls.

I’m going to hit their place tomorrow.

*

I acknowledged last Monday that Jake is an uncomfortable person, someone who does bad things and is entirely unrepentant about it. I suggested that perhaps there was more depth to him than met the eye, though.

In this section I tried to really sow the beginnings of this idea in the reader with how little Jake actually says about himself. He is quite talkative when it comes to critiquing other people, describing their little details, and chronicling a list of events. But he absolutely refuses to ever discuss himself. In his own words that is a lot of things being said about him, but not of him.

In the first section this absence might not have stood so much. It was fast-paced, plunging right into the hacking-action, and his quick banter was well-suited for deflecting closer inspection. But the longer you stay with him the more you find it bizarre to not have heard anything meaningful about him.

This sort of absence will hopefully suggest to most people some sort of hiding, a wound that needs to be covered. The evidence of that wound is further suggested by the selective way he critiques others. Apparently he is able to be tolerant, and even kind, to little girls and women, but we’ve now seen him unnecessarily cut down two men without reason.

This element of a narrator holding back information is, of course, not a new invention. This is the famous “unreliable narrator” where the storytelling might be as flawed and inconsistent as the voice behind it. On Monday I’d like to delve into this concept more, and then we’ll get the final act of Phisherman next Thursday.

Phisherman: Part One

crown group modern motion
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Hey there, you can call me Jake. That’s what I tell people my name is.

Speaking of people, have you ever noticed that they all like to have collections? Poor people collect stamps and coins, rich ones collect houses and cars. Lots of people collect problems. I knew one lady who had a new terminal disease to complain about every week.

Thing is I think everyone collects something or other. We want to find that something where we can say “This. This is what defines me. I could never have too much of this. The more I accumulate of this the more complete I will be.” That makes it so easy, to be made right just by hoarding things.

As for me, I collect people. Now, to be clear, I don’t mean that in a creepy way. Well not as creepy as you’re thinking, anyway. I don’t harvest organs or have a stack of bodies in my cellar or anything like that. I take people’s digital lives. I hack them and uncover all of their public secrets. No, that wasn’t a typo.

Frankly I am amazed at how easy it still is to take the deepest, darkest secrets of people. Even with all the cautionary tales and available resources in cyber-security, people insist on surrendering their lives to their devices. They use those devices to track their calories, to schedule their day, to make their investments, to socialize and communicate. And then they go and connect that device to public networks with virtually no security measures whatsoever. Our digital age is the thief and I’m just the enterprising soul that reaps the field.

Take someone’s name for example. They think its their own, and they think no one knows it unless they tell it to you. But here’s something to try: go somewhere with free WiFi, like a coffee shop or a library. Malls like I’m at now are great, too. Really it’s just a question of what demographic you want to sift through. Now open up your laptop, go to the network settings, and you can see a list of all the devices that you are sharing your connection with. And what are the names on those devices? Invariably you’re going to find a lot of titles like these:

Zekes_Laptopxx
BriansBigDell420
I Am Sam
TiaCuteIPhone

Alright, excellent. Now look at the people around you. It’ really not hard to start matching device names to users. They’ve already told you their personality, what type of brand they’re using, and age (leet speech is younger).

There. See that big meathead doing hunt-and-peck on his laptop keyboard? That, my friends, would be Brian. And that millenial girl with blue hair and an iPhone case encrusted with fake diamonds. Tia.

“Hey Tia, how’s it going?”

She looks up, her smile curious, wondering what old friend is calling to her. It quickly shifts to confusion, she’s running through her high school yearbook in her head, trying to place my face. Nothing comes up and she starts to look upset, offended even. “Um…do I even know you?”

I took something that she thinks she never gave to me. Her name. And it shocks her, she feels violated. I like seeing people with that angry, stupid, self-righteous look. In this moment I have owned her better than she has owned herself. I know her name, I know what she’s thinking, I know what she’s going to do after this: Google “What to do if someone’s stalking me?” and then she’ll change all the locks on her doors.

All I said was five innocent words.

She doesn’t need to worry, though, I’m already done with her. She’s useful for a cathartic moment of shock and awe, but I have no interest in diving deeper into her not-so-private digital life. I’ve already seen enough duck-face-selfies to last me a lifetime. I smile then walk away, continuing to mill around for a more interesting subject.

Tia is shouting “Hey! Hey you! Get back here.” She won’t follow, though, her overconfident voice only betrays how scared she actually is. I stroll past the phone vendors and the tech store. I pause briefly at the maternity clothing shops but decide I don’t feel like fishing for an expectant mother today. Though that can be interesting…

The food court. Talk about your buffets! One contained place and you get a conglomerate of all the types. Jocks and nerds, pretty girls and not-so pretty girls, grandparents and teenagers. Just take your pick. I’m about to go find a table when my head snaps to the side, my eyes glint, and a broad smile splits my face. That, my friends, is a forty-pound bass if I ever saw one.

Or maybe I should say a two-hundred-and-eighty pound bass. He’s extremely overweight and throwing his empty KFC bag in the trash. Dangling from his left hand are the shopping bags he accumulated before this particular pit stop: Under Armour and Garmin. He’s a walking contradiction.

On the one hand he knows his life is pathetic. He’s miserable at who he is and realizing he’s slipping down a hole he won’t ever be able to climb out of. But then on the other hand he’s been deluded by tacky slogans and mass media telling him that “there isn’t anything he can’t do” and he “just has to believe in himself.” They remind him how special he truly is and then promise him happiness if he just buys their brand.

So what does he do? He swipes his card and pays his dues, and the pain is soothed enough that he can hurt himself some more. He’ll go home, eat a tub of ice cream, and say “it’s okay, I bought a new pedometer today so I’m still making progress.” Pathetic, and all so emblematic of all society.

I follow him as he saunters around, watching his watching. He seems to take particular note of the guitar store, no doubt reminiscing on a childhood dream that never came true. He sighs and shuffles away, checks his watch, pauses to think, and finally glides over to a bench in between the main walkways. He sits down and fumbles in his backpack, pulling out a laptop. He’s got some time to kill.

Perfect.

I can’t go sit down next to him right away, that would just look weird. I’ve been careful to hang back enough that he hasn’t seen me yet, and I peel off to the side as I plan my approach. There’s another bench right next to his own. Maybe a little too close. People aren’t usually in the habit of sitting down right next to a stranger, I don’t want this to come off as weird.

I’ve had the thought, of course, that I probably overthink all these details but that’s just part of the fun. It’s all a facet of the performance, you see.

Now where was I? Oh right.

I whip out my phone and begin my approach. I walk in his direction, along the path right in front of him so that he’ll be able to see my act. I’m staring intently at the phone screen, pretending to be reading an engrossing text. I furrow my brow, as if I’ve just read something upsetting right when I become parallel with him. The concern still on my face I stop walking and instead shuffle over to the nearest seat, which not-so-coincidentally happens to be the one right next to my target.

I reach for my own sleek notebook, powering it on to complete the story. I got a text, it upset me, and I have to go online to address whatever it was about. I allow myself a sideway glance at the man. He hasn’t taken notice of me at all. Oh well, the performance was wonderful anyhow.

So long as I’m eyeing him I start taking in more details, looking for some topic of conversation. His shirt says Good Charlotte. I’ve heard the name, but none of their songs come readily to mind. I sit there next to him, reading up about the group and preparing to initiate our conversation.

He sits there next to me entirely oblivious.

A surreptitious reach into my bag, a flick of the switch on to turn on the signal jammer there, a few seconds wait. In no time at all he’s trying to reset his WiFi connections, sighing in exasperation when that doesn’t work. He’s pulled out of his reverie and starting to glance around him. I do the same, making eye contact and mirroring his expression of frustration.

“Hey, are you having trouble connecting here?” I ask before he can.

“Yeah, it’s not finding the WiFi at all.”

I shake my head. “Sucks, man…” I make as though I’m just noticing his shirt for the first time. “Hey, nice!” I gesture to it.

He glances down to see what I mean and breaks into a smile. “Oh yeah! You like ’em?”

“Just started listening to them actually,” I say quickly, the last thing I need is for him to start an in-depth discussion about them. “But I sure like what I heard. Anthem, I Just Wanna Live…” I repeat the first song names that Google brought up for the band and he starts nodding.

“Sure, sure. Those are definitely good ones, but you’re just scratching the surface.”

There it is. The connection. I do a lot to make myself look friendly. Approachable. Nice. Trustworthy.

“Well at least I get to try out my new toy I guess,” I grin, pulling a black box and cable out of my bag. I can tell he wasn’t ready to stop talking about his favorite band, and that’s good. Keep him wanting more.

“What’s that?” he asks curiously as I plug the device into the side of my laptop.

“One of those LTE mobile hotspots. It’s supposed to get me my own internet line anywhere. Once I get it fired up you’re welcome to hop on if you want…”

The hook is dangling and he pauses.

“Naw, it’s cool. I can just use my phone’s data.”

I nod. “Yeah, sure. Let me know if you change your mind.”

With that there’s nothing left but to wait. The jammer will keep his phone from connecting, too. Maybe he’ll come back around, maybe he won’t. This is only going to work if he makes the next approach himself. That’s a secret it took me too long to figure out. People have to be the one’s to initiate their own hacking.

While he vainly waves his phone in the air to find a signal I open up some fake webpages on my screen. They’re just imitation websites running locally from my machine since I’m not actually connected to the internet either.

He’s putting his phone away and we’ve come to the moment of truth. It would be easy for him to just get up and walk away…unless he wants to stay here. Because he wants a moment of feeling like I’m his friend.

“Hey, uh…” he begins bashfully. “Was your hotspot able to connect?”

“Yeah, it’s working great!”

“Sweet. Uh, is it still cool if I hop on?”

“‘Course, man!” I grin broadly. “It’s ‘WiFist of Fury.’ That’s w-i-f-i-s-t. Password is ’roundhouse kick to the head,’ all lowercase and one word.” This is another of my secrets. I give them my password, I don’t ask them for theirs.

“Nice,” he smiles back, then opens his laptop back up. As he does so I slide my hand back into the bag, and switch the jammer off. A moment later a notification in the corner of my screen lights up.

New Device Connected.

Got you I think.

The device name is PetesDragonComputer. Well pleased to meet you, Pete. He starts browsing the web, happy as can be while I reach back through our tether and start browsing his own computer.

First things first, I install a key-logger so I can start tracking everything he types. If he happens to log into his email while we’re connected I’ll get his credentials and then I can have a field day with his data. Even if he doesn’t, there’s plenty I can do now.

I open up his file structure and start browsing. The “Documents” directories are obvious, I set those copying over to my machine immediately. But then I start checking for anything else that looks out-of-the-ordinary. A “P90X Workout Program” folder? Yes, please.

As the files copy over I see a few of them are pictures. Glancing sideways to ensure Pete isn’t watching I open a couple of them.

Day_1.jpg, it’s an image of Pete from the side, his shirt off, his beer-keg-gut hanging loose for all to see.

I scroll down to the last entry and open it.

Day_60.jpg, it’s an image of Pete from the side, his shirt off, the exact same beer-keg-gut hanging out. Literally all that’s changed is the color of his shorts.

I snigger, and quickly Alt-Tab away in case Pete looks over towards my screen.

Nothing else obvious stands out, so I start searching his directories for some favorite keywords. In order I look for:

passwords
pete
secret
love
family
ideas
dreams
hitlist

I didn’t always search for that last one, but after stumbling across such a file on one computer I’ve always hoped to find another. Any matches get copied over to my hard drive. After any matches from those get copied over to my hard-drive I’ll get started on more photos and videos. Those can be juicy, but they also take time to transfer and you never know how long you have before your fish decides to swim away.

And so I sit there, literally downloading the life of this man who is sitting right next to me. I’ll just keep taking so long as he keeps giving. I don’t delve into his secrets just yet, as soon as he leaves I’ll head back to my apartment, order a pizza, connect my laptop to the tv, turn off all the lights, and start getting to know Pete. If the keylogger managed to lift any passwords I’ll get to know him even better. I’ll come to know him better than most of his closest families and friends. I will consume him, and he will become just another part of my collection.

So no, I’m not some sort of “ethical hacker,” and I’m not the lovable rogue with a heart of gold. I don’t question whether what I’m doing is wrong or not. It is. But be that as it may, try and tell me you aren’t a little intrigued yourself…

*

So there we have it, as promised on Monday this story is in a very different style than my usual fare. It has a different setting and the voice from what I usually write, but more dramatic a shift is just the experience I am trying to evoke in the reader. Whereas most of my stories are meant to provoke introspection and pondering, this one had far less lofty goals. To put it bluntly I expect the reader to feel fairly slimy, tainted just by being associated with someone as unnerving as Jake.

Writing this definitely stretched me, both in form and function. On the one hand I had to adjust to writing shorter sentences, chattier dialogue, and snappier pacing. Even further, though, I had to access some different corners of the mind. Where titles like Glimmer feature characters that are so earnest and sincere, this one required tapping into being cynical and manipulative. I certainly have those shadows in me, but I usually don’t write from them.

That’s not to suggest that our main character is one-dimensional, though. While right now he’s only shown you a single slice of him, as an author it is important for me to keep in mind all the details that make him a more real person and be true to them. That’s a concept I’ll be exploring more in my next post, come back on Monday to read about that. Then, on Thursday, we’ll get some new developments in Jake’s story with the second section of Phisherman. I’ll see you there.