Authors: Katie Kacvinsky
Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult, #Chick-Lit, #Contemporary
So, you can imagine my surprise when my mom gave me a blank book. I rarely see a book with print in it, and now a blank one
what a waste. No wonder we killed all the trees. And I’m supposed to write in this thing. Longhand. It’s this form of writing using ink on paper. It’s so slow! It makes me laugh watching people do it in old movies. It hasn’t been used in twenty years. We learn it in school, but it’s simulated on our flipscreens. Only specialty online stores sell ink pens, but leave it to my mom to invest in this historic item. “Madeline, ” she told me, “it’s good for you to write down your thoughts. It’s therapeutic because it forces you to slow down and think about life.
I feel guilty writing on this paper, staining something with words when maybe it’s their emptiness, the fact that they’re unscathed, that’s more interesting than anything I have to say. My life is far from remarkable. Sadly, it’s the other extreme. It is predictable. Controlled. Mandated. Paved out for me in a trail I’m forced to follow.
Why should I take the time to write down my thoughts when no one else can even read them? I’m used to millions of people having access to everything about me. I’m used to a fountain of feedback and comments trailing every entry I type, every thought I expose. That makes me feel justified. It shows that people genuinely care about me. It reminds me that I’m real and I exist. Why try to hide it all in a book? Besides, there are no secrets. Sooner or later, the truth always leaks out. That’s one thing I’ve learned in this life.
I pulled a sweatshirt over my head, and just as I opened my bedroom door, I was distracted by a red light flashing on my computer. I was running late, but the glow of the light caught my attention and held me in place like a net. I programmed my screen to flash different colors depending on who was calling. I knew red could only mean one person. I sat down and tapped the light with my finger and a single white sentence materialized on the screen.
Are you going to be there tonight?
I read Justin’s question and bit my lips together. My mind told me to say no. That answer would please my father. He trained me to squeeze my thoughts through a filter so my decisions came out acceptable and obedient. But lately it was making me feel weak, like my mind wasn’t really mine anymore, just a program to manipulate. That’s why this time, I was tempted to say yes.
I met Justin two months ago on TutorPage—it’s a live chatroom for students to get help on homework assignments. We were both stuck on writing a thesis sentence for our literary analysis paper, a requirement in Digital School 4. Since the tutor was being swarmed with questions and Justin and I had the same problem, we figured
it out together. I remember him writing the oddest comment that day. He wrote, “Two brains are better than one.” It was strange because you can go through all of DS-4 without even looking at another person, let alone working with someone. One of the perks to a digital life is it forces you to be independent.
Justin and I coordinated to study two days a week together and then he started sending me invites to face-to-face tutor sessions held in downtown Corvallis. When he assured me the groups were small, but could be helpful, I still dreaded the idea of meeting him in public. I’m used to the security of living behind my online profiles and the clip art advertisements I create to define me. I can be whoever I want to be in that world. I can be funny, deep, pensive, eccentric. I can be the best version of myself. Better yet, an exaggeration of the best version of myself. I can make all the right decisions. I can delete my flaws by pressing a button.
In the real world anything can happen. It’s like stepping onto an icy surface—you have to adjust your footing or you’ll slip and fall. Your movements become rigid and unsure because behind all the fancy gadgets and all that digital armor, you realize you’re just flesh and bones.
I stared back at the screen where his words floated patiently and a strange feeling, like a shot of adrenaline, pushed through my blood. I knew I had to meet him tonight. Intuition works closely alongside fate, like they’re business partners working together to alter the course of your life.
I spoke my answer out loud and my voice was automatically converted into a digital message.
was the best response, just in case I lost my nerve. I hit send and a second later he responded.
Life is too short to say maybe.
I narrowed my eyes at the screen. Why was he pushing this? Why couldn’t he let me be noncommittal and leave me alone about it?
Why are you going out of your way to meet me?
Why are you going out of your way to avoid it?
I’ve been grounded for a while.
I hesitated before I hit send. I’d never opened up to Justin about my personal life. We always kept our relationship safe—bobbing just on the surface.
A while? As in a few weeks?
I laughed, but it came out sounding flat and humorless. Try two and a half years, I thought. I decided he didn’t need to know this detail. It’s easy to delete the truth when you live behind your own permanent censor.
Something like that,
What did you do?
I have a rebellious streak.
That’s a little vague,
I frowned at the screen.
I’m not going to dish out my life story to an online stranger.
Then I think it’s about time we meet,
I bit my nails when this sentence appeared. I focused on the words. They sounded so simple. But just when I believed something was simple, there was always more lurking underneath.
I’ll be there,
I said, and hit send before I could change my mind.
I hopped out of the chair, grabbed my soccer cleats, and ran downstairs to the kitchen. Dad glanced at me from the table where he was reading the news on our wall screen. My mom sat next to him, reading a magazine—she insists on having the hard copy, printed on plastic paper. She’s the only person I know who complains that computer screens hurt her eyes.
Dad examined the shoes I was holding with disapproval.
“I thought your season was over,” he said.
I felt my hands tighten around the shoes and I kept my eyes focused steadily on his. We had the same large, penetrating eyes, the color of swirling gray clouds with flecks of green floating
near the pupils. When my dad was angry, his eyes turned as dark as storm clouds just before they erupt into a downpour. He could use his eyes to intimidate, to persuade, or to demand respect. I hadn’t mastered those traits; my eyes only seemed to give me away.
“The league goes year-round,” Mom pointed out to him.
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Did we talk about you playing soccer year-round, Maddie? I thought you were just playing fall and winter leagues.”
I kept my eyes locked on his. He tried too often to make me duck under his discipline. Baley, our chocolate Lab, wagged her tail next to me and I bent down to scratch her ears.
“The spring league just started,” I said. “It’s only once a week. I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
“It’s a little expensive,” he said.
I tried not to roll my eyes since I knew my dad made more money than ten families would know what to do with, being the director of Digital School, Inc. The curriculum, medium, and content of what I learned—and where and when I learned it—was overseen and instituted by the signature of my father’s hand. It was also his power and connections that got me in trouble two and a half years ago and created the constant rift of distrust in our relationship. Half of the time he didn’t seem like a father to me, more like security enforcement.
“She’s seventeen, Kevin,” Mom said. “Didn’t we agree to let her socialize more often?” I stared between them and tightened my lips. I hated it when they talked about me like I wasn’t standing in the same room, like I’m a piece of clay they have to mold in order to hold a shape.
“I guess you’re right,” he finally agreed.
I nodded once and thanked him. I raced out the front door and ran down the sidewalk to try and catch the train. The air was warm
and the sun was finally making its spring entrance, after a long winter of hibernation. Rays of light peered through the branches above me and painted a splattering of bright and dull colors on the turf grass below. The tower of green leaves crinkled in the breeze as I passed. I met the train just as it pulled to a stop on Hamersley Street. I jumped on and scanned my fingerprint against a tiny screen as the doors beeped shut behind me.
Erin sat by the window in the back of the compartment. She was watching something on her phone and nodding her head to the music floating out of the speakers.
“Hey,” I said, and plopped down in the seat next to her. I took my phone out of my pocket to check a message.
“You almost missed the train,” she said without looking up. “That’s not like you.”
I was distracted by a digital advertisement playing on a screen inside the compartment. A middle-aged man dressed in khaki shorts and a white T-shirt promised me I could transform my entire lawn into a colorful flower garden in five easy steps. I watched him roll out a thick carpeting of plastic grass speckled with fake flowers and staple it into the ground.
“Why were you late?” Erin asked.
“My dad wanted to have a little chat,” I said.
She smirked and pressed a few buttons on her keypad. “What now?”
I tapped my foot restlessly against the rubber floor mat. “Oh, he just needs reassurance he’s in complete control of every facet of my life.”
Erin creased her eyebrows and continued to type. “He doesn’t trust you to play soccer?” she asked.
I shrugged. “It’s unsupervised, it’s liberating,” I reminded her. “He hates that.”
When the train slowed to our stop, we jumped off and crossed the sidewalk to the turf soccer fields. I heard whistling in the distance and Erin and I looked up to see a small school of black birds soaring overhead. Their small inky bodies formed a moving arrow in the sky, like a kite with no strings attached to reel it back down to the ground. Seeing birds in the city was rare, since all the trees and gardens were synthetic, but once in a while they passed through and I always took it as a sign that something exceptional was about to happen.
I looked down at the dark outline of a bird tattooed on the inside of my wrist, where the skin is delicate and the veins are thick. I ran my finger along its outstretched wings and smiled. Every time I looked at my tattoo I was reminded of the person I wanted to be. Someone that’s free to move. Someone that’s too spirited to be caged in.
Erin and I sat down on the grass to stretch. We were the only two players that showed up early for practice every week.
“So, are you meeting Justin tonight?” she asked me with a grin. I frowned to show her, for the tenth time, it was not a date.
“It’s just a study group,” I reminded her.
Her phone beeped and she started typing a message. “Do you know what he looks like?”
I shook my head and told her we both used face-free chatting. I never revealed my real picture online. Now that I thought about it, most of my contacts (or friends as some people refer to them) didn’t even know what I looked like. They saw cartoons, photographs, and clip art images that illustrated the idea of me.
“We never get personal,” I told her. “I don’t know anything about him except he has trouble writing thesis statements and conclusion paragraphs. He doesn’t even know my real name,” I added with a grin.
Erin set her phone down and met my eyes for the first time today. “You created a fake profile for a tutor site? Why bother?”
I shrugged and stretched my legs. “I want privacy,” I told her. “My dad’s practically a celebrity, but I don’t want people to assume just because I’m his daughter I agree with everything he’s doing. Besides, I never expected to meet Justin in person. I figured we’d study for a few classes and be done.”
She shook her head with amusement. “Does he even know you’re a girl?” she asked.
I couldn’t help but smile. “I guess we’ll find out.”
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