Authors: Michael Bailey
“I was reading your file,” he says. “You’re from Cape Cod?”
Small talk. I’m not a fan, but I go with it. “Yeah, from Barnstable, but I was born here. We moved to the Cape when I was little.”
“Ah. What brings you back to Kingsport?”
“Long story short, my parents got divorced, Mom grew up here, my grandfather still lives here, she needed to do the whole reboot-my-life thing, so here we are.”
Mr. Dent gives me a sympathetic grunt. He can tell it’s a sore subject and doesn’t press. Did I mention I like him?
“I think you’ll like it here,” he says. “Kingsport’s a good place to live. It has a nice small-town vibe without being a small town, if you read me, and we have a big mall,” he says as if that’s a point of interest.
“I’m not a mall rat,” I say, trying not to come off as snooty about it, even though I am. I never understood hanging out at the mall as a social experience, even during my Dark Period, when the mall was my second home. More on that later, promise.
“Well, there’s still a lot to do. If you like movies, there’s a cool old theater in town that’s always showing classic films, there’s a big park in the center of town,
there’s an excellent coffee shop on—no, sorry, that’s closed right now.”
“That would be the one that got trashed by the runaway robot?”
Mr. Dent grinds to a stop and purses his lips. “You’ve heard about the robot problem?”
“Hard not to, it’s all over the news.” I think I surprise him by admitting I watch the news. “Besides, that coffee shop was my granddad’s favorite hangout. All I’ve heard since we moved in is, ‘Damned robot. Where am I supposed to get my latté now?’”
In addition to the many features Mr. Dent listed, Kingsport is a technology town. A bunch of tech companies have their headquarters here, including one outfit I think is called Advanced Robotics and Cybernetics, something like that. They started out making those goofy vacuum cleaner robots for your home, then branched out to developing robots for the military and, more recently, high-end prosthetic limbs for injured soldiers (I heart them for that). Apparently they’ve been having some problems with their military products. ARC dabbles in artificial intelligence so their tankbots and bomb disposalbots and minesweeperbots and whatnot can carry out their missions without human controllers, but I guess the A.I. has been a bit buggy, and a couple of their prototypes have decided to run away from home and raise hell in town. No one’s been killed but a few people have been hurt and there’s been no small amount of property damage, so ARC is not well-loved by the good people of Kingsport nowadays—my grandfather and other loyal patrons of the Coffee Experience foremost among them.
“I can sympathize,” Mr. Dent says as he leads
me through a crazy intersection, which he calls the Twilight Zone due to its uncanny ability to confuse anyone who is not intimately familiar with the building. The building’s expanded many times over the years to keep up with population growth, he explains, so there are areas that don’t make any sense and will get me lost, a lot.
“I still get turned around myself,” he says before picking a corridor. I catch a soft
from him when he spots my homeroom, so I suspect that he took a shot in the dark and got lucky.
Everyone in the room looks me over as I enter. Most of them need only a second or two before they make all their initial judgments about me and go back to chatting with their friends, feverishly finishing up neglected homework, et cetera. A few take a little longer. They either don’t know what to think of me or they’re ogling me (I know this sounds smug, but I am ogle-worthy, have been since middle school. I try to be a
more modest about it nowadays, so take this as a statement of fact rather than a boast, please).
The teacher, a woman teetering on the edge of middle age named Mrs. Prescott, welcomes me in and announces to the mostly indifferent class that I’m the new student, Caroline (ugh) Hauser.
“Call me Carrie,” I say before Caroline can sink in, but no one cares either way.
There’s an empty seat in the back. I pass through a gauntlet of critical eyes, appraising me, analyzing me, trying to figure out how smart I am, if I put out, what color my underwear is, what my favorite band is (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, for the record. I’m old-school. Trash the Boss at your peril). In the five
seconds it takes me to reach my desk I’ve been thoroughly dissected, scrutinized, and categorized. Everyone has made up their minds about me. I’ve only said three words to anyone here.
High school would be a great place if it weren’t for all the teenagers.
And yet, this is the only place in my life right now that feels at all familiar or comfortable. What a sad statement that is.
My skin prickles. Someone is staring at me, a kid in the last row, one seat to my left. He’s pretty ordinary looking, another face in the high school crowd. A little too disheveled to be called cute I decide—a borderline slob, in fact, and then I mentally kick myself for falling into the Snap-Judgment Trap myself. I should know better than to condemn on a first impression, but this kid is making it tough. The way he’s looking at me...he’s not passing judgment or trying to figure me out. It looks like he’s planning his next move. It makes me uncomfortable.
He gives me a slight upward tilt of the head, the
nod, and I give him one back as a courtesy. I notice a nametag reading HELLO, MY NAME IS on his black T-shirt and I think,
, and then I see the name written in the blank space: INIGO MONTOYA. Below that, in smaller handwriting: YOU KILLED MY FATHER. PREPARE TO DIE.
Okay, weird kid, you’re a
fan. Point in your favor, but you’re still ooging me out.
The bell rings, signaling that it’s time to hustle to my first class: English, which I can handle no problem. Native tongue and all that.
The weird kid is right behind me. “Hi,” he says,
keeping pace with me. “I’m Matt.”
“I’m Carrie,” I say politely but distractedly. My attention is on the placards screwed to the off-white walls listing the room numbers. They’re huge, like the school was designed by people who publish large-print books for old people.
“So I heard. I think we’re going to be good friends, you and me.”
“Oh?” I say. And it’s
you and I
. See? Good at English.
“Yeah. We have stuff in common.”
“Oh yeah. What lunch do you have?”
Oh God, is he hitting on me? “I’m not sure, I—”
He snatches right out of my hand,
right out of my hand as I’m trying to read it
, the printout listing my schedule. He reads it, hands it back. “First lunch. That’s the good one. The food is still hot. It’s terrible, but still hot. That’s my lunch too. See? That is totally a sign we’re going to be buddies.”
“It could also be coincidence,” I say, a chill creeping into my voice. This kid, Matt, is sliding from weird to jerk in record time.
“Nah. It’s fate. It’s meant to happen.”
“We’ll see,” I say as we reach the Twilight Zone. I wait for him to go first because no matter which way he goes, even if it’s the corridor I need, I want to go a different way and put some distance between us.
“We shall,” he says, and off he goes, and it’s not the direction I’m heading.
Aw, crap. I’m lost.
Thankfully, the teachers understand the idiosyncrasies of their building and are forgiving of new students who get lost in the Twilight Zone. My classmates? Not so much. There’s very deliberate snickering as I enter my English class three minutes late.
I recognize a few faces from my homeroom but the rest are complete strangers, so I get to go through the grand judgment routine once again. The teacher, Mr. Abell, declares that today will be an in-class discussion about the effect of modern technology on communication. From that debate he’ll select a few topic sentences, and from those we’ll choose one and write a one thousand-word essay. He gets the ball rolling and says, with unmasked disdain, that instant messaging and texting are creating a generation that is less capable of clearly communicating ideas. Ah, technophobia, alive and well in my elders.
Mr. Abell waits for someone to respond and I’m disappointed to see no one is raising a hand. This is an advanced English class; the kids here are supposed to be the ones who want to learn. What gives, people?
Oh, well. I was hoping for an excuse to blow a few preconceived notions out of the water, so here I go.
“Yes...Carrie, was it?”
“If you’d stated that the shorthand younger people use when IMing or texting was undermining
, I’d agree.” I stand, because I want to create a little bit of a spectacle. “But I think because things like Twitter and text messages limit the number of characters you can utilize per entry, it’s forced users to be more efficient. Sure, OMG and LOL and FTW look like
gibberish to some people, but they communicate full ideas, and if you know the lingo, you can have complete and coherent conversations.”
Mr. Abell looks at me. The other kids look at me. Their minds, they have been blown.
Yes, I am a brainiac. That, I will boast about. I’m smart and I own it. I haven’t always, but...
All right, enough teasing, I’ll explain. When I was little I was a “cute kid,” which is the best an unabashed tomboy can hope for. Around middle school I discovered that God saw fit to equip me with Option Package Three-B: blonde, boobs, booty. People started calling me a “pretty girl,” but I didn’t buy into it until the other adolescent pretty girls decided I was one of them, and then I got swept into the Cult of Blossoming Hotties. By the time I entered freshman year of high school, I was a full-fledged vapid bimbo. A lot of the things I liked to do, I stopped doing. A lot of the people I liked to hang out with, I abandoned. Schoolwork? Neglected. Intelligence? Sublimated. Personality? Replaced. I sloughed off my old life because almost none of it fit in my newly adopted stereotype—and what did I get in return for it all? Not sympathy, that’s for sure. When my parents dropped their bombshell, I was actually chastised for daring to kill the group buzz with all my, quote, “stupid whining” about my broken heart.
My parents’ divorce took up the whole summer. My divorce from my so-called friends was instantaneous.
I truly hate and regret that entire chapter of my life. I used to think my parents’ divorce was God punishing me for so completely turning my back on everything I was and everyone in my old (and, I say with the
benefit of hindsight, much better and happier) life. I know now that’s not true. Their divorce was not some kind of karmic payback for my time as a selfish bitch.
Still, if any one thing good came out of my mom and dad splitting, it was that I finally got my head screwed on straight again. That, and I found the alien that gave me my powers, and I swear I will tell you about that soon.
(Side note: did you know that out of all the known superhumans in the United States, fourteen of them claim to have received their powers through extraterrestrial intervention or technology? That’s what Wikipedia says, so take it with a grain of salt, but who knew that aliens coming to Earth was such a common occurrence?)
Anyway, I have officially outed myself as a smart girl. I can’t tell who, aside from Mr. Abell, is impressed by this, but I don’t care. I was overly concerned with what people thought of me once, and I’m not letting it happen again. No way.
“Very interesting perspective on the matter, Carrie, thank you,” Mr. Abell says, and I sit down. A guy two rows ahead of me turns around in his seat, long enough to give me the stink-eye and let me know he doesn’t appreciate me raising the bar for the rest of the class like that.
High school lunchrooms take everything bad about high school and concentrate it. Tables become exclusive members-only clubs, and God help you if you try to enter without an invitation.
So here I am, wandering around a lunch room
big enough to hold a football game in, tray of steaming hot meat-based slop and soggy vegetables in hand, searching in vain for a vacant seat and some friendly faces. A guy sitting at a table of jocks and cheerleaders waves me over and I am filled with guarded hope.
(I’m guessing that it’s a jock/cheerleader table based on the fact a couple of the guys are built like refrigerators. You see, unlike high schools as portrayed on TV, jocks and cheerleaders do not constantly wear their uniforms during the school day. I mean, come on.)
“Need a seat, baby?” says the kid who waved at me, and it’s loathe at first sight. Baby? Really? He slaps his thigh. “Right here. Nice and comfy.”
I can’t help myself. “No thanks. Looks a little too small for my tastes.”
That earns me a round of “Burn!” from the rest of the table and a wounded look from my would-be suitor. What’s it going to be? Try to turn it around and win me over, or call me a lesbian and be done with it? I’ll never know because an arm wraps around my shoulder and guides me away. It’s that Matt character, and right now I don’t know whether to thank him or knee him in the groin. Maybe one then the other.
“Good for you. Angus and his cronies are so far beneath you,” Matt declares. “You know the old saying ‘high school is the best time of your life’? Yeah, that was invented for people like them. They’re all going to peak in senior year and spend the rest of their lives wishing they could travel back in time so they could pretend they mattered again.”
I try to shrug off his hand without spilling my tray full of chum, which is congealing fast. “Do you also know the old saying ‘personal space’?”
To his credit, he takes his hand away, but he doesn’t follow up with an apology. “Now, if you want to go where the elite meet to eat, walk this way,” he says, and he drops into a strange limp, like his right leg has gone completely dead. He looks back at me expectantly. “Don’t tell me you don’t know that one?”
“What one?” I have no idea what he’s talking about. “I’m going to find my own seat, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Your call, but if you change your mind?” He gestures at a corner table that is almost empty, the only one in the cafeteria that is not shoulder-to-shoulder full. Three kids are sitting there, two girls and a guy. There’s a distinct air of segregation around them. It’s the Freak Table.