Authors: Julie Smith
Kenny, the one who’d looked forward to “macaroni and cheese,” almost forgot to eat. Sheila, who’d called dinner “pig slop,” shoveled pasta mechanically.
Kenny stared. “He didn’t do it. Somebody stole his wallet.”
“No, he did do it. He’d made bail by that time, so I went back over to his house, with a temperature of a hundred and two. What do you know, he was lying in bed, a whole different color from two days earlier, and sweat all over his forehead. We both got the flu from his wife, who got the idea because she was sick.”
“Criminals have lousy imaginations,” said Sheila. She looked at Dee-Dee, then Skip, and Skip felt a momentary tingle. For a moment all was forgiven; uncles and aunts were okay people.
Kenny said, “She wasn’t the criminal; he was.”
Sheila hit him. “Oh, shut up!”
Kenny set up a howl.
Jimmy Dee had had a glass of wine by now. Skip thought this nearly always improved his parenting. “Sheila, could you apologize to Kenny, please?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
Jimmy Dee sent Skip a “help me” look. She said, “Honey, we have this thing in police work. Do you know what excessive force is?”
Kenny answered for her: “It’s like when you hit somebody and you didn’t really have to.”
Sheila raised her hand again, ready to give a second swat. But she caught Skip’s eye. “Overkill?”
Skip nodded. “Overkill. As in, that’ll be enough.” She changed the subject quickly. “One of you wouldn’t have a laptop I could borrow, would you?”
“I’ve got a notebook. That’s better.”
She went home with a computer she could take to bed. Jimmy Dee had shown her how to attach her phone so the modem would work. All she had to do was ask it to dial the number of the TOWN (programmed in by Jimmy Dee at her request).
Sure. She knew how that went. In about a week the glitches would be ironed out and she’d be connected.
But not true; magically, the TOWN identified itself and asked her for login: Steve. Then her password: Skip2mLu. And zap, she was on the TOWN.
It was quite a lot like being in a real town—say, New York or Paris—with eighty million different options. She could walk down to the corner for coffee or she could take in the opera. And why do just one? Why not the movies, then the opera, then coffee and after that ice cream?
There were categories: Body and Mind, the World, Interactions, the Arts, Sports, Politics, Hill and Dale, Computers—on and on like that; she counted twenty-three. And under each category, there were conferences. In some twelve or fifteen; in one or two, a hundred or so. At random, she picked one: Pets. She ended up at the top of a list of topics. As instructed by Steve, she pressed
for “browse, reverse.” Now she was at the bottom of the list where the current topics were. The last one, Topic 256, was “TOWNies recommend vets”; most of the entries had to do with West Coast practitioners. Number 255 was “When Calicoes Turn Bad.”
She tried another conference: Relationships. Worse still— there were 733 topics. Already she was overstimulated and she’d only been here five minutes. She could see how a person might feel safe on this thing. It was so enormous, surely you were just another graffiti artist. She realized with a shock that was what this felt like—illicit scribblings on someone else’s wall.
I’ll just see what looks interesting and go there,
she told herself.
First she went to Confession. It was nothing if not lively. The topic devoted to Geoff’s death had the rather flip title, she noticed, of “Out on the TOWN.” Outraged, Lenore (whose user ID was her name) had started a new topic called “TOWN Without Pity,” in which TOWNspeople were invited to assess their own voyeurism, cruelty, and lack of feeling. Someone called Bboy had answered: “Now, hold on, Lenore. I think about ninety-nine percent of the posts in that topic are really very caring. The topic name is a little over the top, but surely you realize that one of the main ways people have of dealing with grief is black humor.”
A third user, none other than the legendary Bigeasy, had said simply: “Great book on that subject—
The Grief Cycle
by T. M. Collins.”
To which Greenie had riposted: “I think Lenore has a good point. Haven’t we been acting a little like vultures?”
“Speak for yourself, Green One. :-).” wrote Arthurx. The little pictograph was something both Steve and Jimmy Dee (a veteran of AOL) had told her about—a little side-wise face called a “smiley,” the idea being to defuse anything that might sound sarcastic, to show that the writer was just kidding.
If the idea, thought Skip, was to make you feel like you were in a real conversation, this topic was a terrible advertisement. Because a lot of conversations were like this—banal. A lot of forgettable remarks came out of people’s mouths, but fortunately they were forgotten two minutes later. These were here forever; legitimate graffiti.
She went back to “Out on the TOWN.” Now this had a lot more going for it. She had to admit that scribblings that escalated from a simple newsflash that a TOWNsperson had tied to getting the autopsy report and launching what amounted to a coast-to-coast investigation was a use of computer technology she hadn’t really thought of before. Lenore, Layne (Teaser), and Bigeasy were large in “Out on the TOWN,” Lenore and Layne especially. Both were deep in the drama of it; wanted to keep it going, maybe keep Geoff alive that way. (Or maybe throw suspicion off themselves.) But there was no new information—nothing she hadn’t already seen with Layne.
As long as she was just browsing, she found a topic that explained the nuances of smileys and another that was essentially a guide to TOWN abbreviations. F2F, for instance, meant “face-to-face,” a type of interaction most TOWNies seemed to want to avoid. Then there was IMHO: “in my humble opinion”; SMTOE: “sets my teeth on edge”; MIML, as in “the MIML says”: “man in my life”; and Skip’s personal favorite, AFOG, as in “I broke up with my boyfriend; it wasn’t true love, only AFOG”: “Another fucking opportunity for growth.”
Just to round things out, she went to “Sex.” Topic 543, at the top of the reverse list, was “The Sensuality of Ears.” She went down the list, finally settling on “What’s Your Favorite Perversion?” It was quite amazing. People whose names could be looked up by pushing a button were perfectly candid on threesomes, dogs “trained to give pleasure,” nippling (an invention of the person who described it), and various degrees of bondage.
Dazed, Skip hustled out and over to “Books” as an antidote. If she had expected high literary discourse, she didn’t find it in the first topic she tried, “What’s so great about
The posts went something like this:
“Loved, loved, loved it. Do yourself a favor and race right out.”
“Couldn’t stand the characters.”
“Well, I’ve known assholes like that. But what an absurdly implausible plot!”
She was tempted to post something like: “I think what the author was trying to do, Georgie and Rinty, was create an allegory in which neither the plot nor the characters really mattered. Rather, it was her view of the moral bankruptcy of the modem college student—”
Something stupid and meaningless—well, laughable, actually—but at least it would show these creeps who were taking up her time with their unsolicited goddamn opinions. Who cared?
Certainly not Skip. Not even a little bit. She was bored nearly to distraction by “liked it,” “didn’t,” “did for a different reason,” “didn’t either,” which truly seemed a big part of most conferences that weren’t specifically set up for something—like games, or working out computer problems, or trading information on where to buy things. Every time she nearly numbed out from the boredom she simply went to another topic, another conference. She was absolutely astonished when she checked her watch and noticed it was three-thirty
“No what, honey?” asked Lenore. Caitlin had been fussy lately.
“You don’t like the soup?”
“Hate the soup.”
So she had to dump it and make noodles. Caitlin had eaten noodles for the fifth straight day in a row. They said at day care that she ate other things at lunch, even now and then consumed a vegetable or two, but Lenore wasn’t sure she wasn’t going to get anemia and vitamin deficiency from steady starch.
“An orange for dessert?”
“Uh-uh.” And the kid banged her spoon on the table to make her point.
“You’re so cute when you’re mad.”
Caitlin just stared at her, unable to comprehend. Or else she did comprehend and thought the remark as stupid as Lenore did. But she had said it out of the sudden rush of love that came over her as Caitlin’s alien gold curls caught the light.
Her father had been black—“had been” because Lenore only saw him once. Or at any rate he had been a Creole, someone with more white blood than black, probably, but “black” all the same. He was a beautiful tall tan man (as well as she could remember) with hair lighter than Lenore’s, but not nearly so light as Caitlin’s, which was curly as poodle fur and shot through with gold. Not blond, but pure gold. Her skin was dark walnut, the most beautiful color Lenore had ever seen on a human being, and she was chubby, with tiny little creases in her arms and legs.
“Okay. Mom’s dumb, huh?’
“Yes. Yes!” Now Caitlin was banging happily, delightedly.
“Honey, don’t get so worked up so close to bedtime. Let’s go take a bath, okay?’
“No!” But she smiled when she said it.
Half an hour later, Caitlin was fresh in a white nightgown with Mickey Mouse faces all over it, and Lenore was suddenly overcome with the burdens of the day, with missing Geoff.
“Not tonight. Mama’s too tired.”
“That’s right. Good night to you too, Moon.”
She spoke sharply. “I said no, Caitlin.”
And suddenly, it was the great flood of Tupelo. Damn! The slightest little thing and the kid tuned up and cried.
“Goddammit Caitlin, shut up!”
That only made her cry more.
Well, there was nothing to do but rock her, which Lenore did until they were both asleep. Lenore came to with a start, grateful she hadn’t dropped the baby in her sleep.
She put Caitlin to bed, but she couldn’t go herself yet. There were things to do. Many, many things to do.
She began to get things out—the black altar cloth, the black candles, the cauldron, the ritual black-handled knife. She was so tired….
A bath first. It would wake her up and she needed to do it anyway, to purify herself, to get ready. She put out her black robe.
She put herbs in the water—vervain, marjoram, peppermint, rosemary—a special mixture for the things she needed; healing, especially.
Afterward, she decided against the robe. Better to work sky-clad. But she wore her cord, from which hung charms that were still working, each tied in its own silk or leather bag, and around her neck she slipped a pendant, a silver pentacle hung on a black silk cord.
She found the four candles she needed to call the quarters—yellow for east, red for south, blue for west, and green for north. She got ready some paper and matches—later there was something she would bum in her cauldron. (Some held that the cauldron was really a cup that should never hold anything but water. Lenore did not subscribe to that; she needed fire in hers.) She got the water and salt she needed, her altar pentacle; her chalice. And a bolline, a white-handled knife, for carving words in the candles, the black ones. And then another thing—dragon’s blood to anoint the candles.
Was that all? She thought so.
She was exhausted. But she had everything together and she had already written the incantation she would need.
It was just past Samhain and the veil was still thin—she could feel the pull from the other side. She felt it often at this time of year, but more so now;
because of Geoff
, she thought. She couldn’t cope on her own; she thought she would never be rid of him, rid of this horrible weight on her shoulders, this knife in her heart. But what she was about to do would help.
She picked up the black-handled knife.
* * *
Pearce Randolph poured himself a nice friendly little drink of bourbon before logging onto the TOWN. It was a nightly ritual, one he had come to love. To adore.
Sometimes he would light a cigar, puff on it, rub his softening belly, and think smugly to himself,
I own this TOWN; I’m somebody here.
Tongue firmly planted in cheek, of course. Pearce Randolph was in no way a stupid man, a fact of which he was well aware and reminded himself when he needed to. But yet, when the silly old thought came, he rather relished it. Especially if he was well into that friendly little ritual bourbon.
He also had more serious thoughts, along the lines of
Get out of TOWN by sundown
You’ll never eat lunch in this TOWN again.
He had the power to make someone disappear. He was loved on the TOWN. You couldn’t do it by hate, by being nasty to someone—the TOWN didn’t work that way. What you had to do when one of these arrogant assholes came along, these goddamn know-it-alls, was simply outpost them. Outperform. Upstage.
They were there partly because they thrived on competition, but mostly because they had to be at the top of the heap all the time. So Pearce had his work cut out for him. He was mayor of the goddamn TOWN, and that wasn’t easy to do, considering the vast majority of heavy users were concentrated in California and actually knew each other F2F.
That he did pride himself on; that was the fun of it. Of course it helped that he was a professional writer and what you did on this thing, when you got right down to it, was you wrote.
He could do what he had to do in thirty minutes, but he usually spent a leisurely hour, even an hour and a half, dropping witticisms here, bon mots there. First, the TOWN Hall, everybody’s favorite conference. If the TOWN had been the COMPANY, this would have been the virtual watercooler. As it was, in twentieth-century America there wasn’t an analogous meeting place in. a real town. Which was one of the things, in Pearce’s opinion, that made the virtual one superior. You dropped in, you said hello, you got the news, you bantered a bit, and you went on to your other favorite conferences. Pearce liked Writing, Movies, Books, Confession, Games, Weird Stuff, and Sex, but he never posted in the last, just lurked. It was amusing to match up the ingenuous disclosures here with the pomposity affected by the same users elsewhere.