When I could barely walk, my father had a then-impressive Macintosh IIci, and a 2400 baud modem.
One of the first nightmares I ever had involved the screech that it gave off when it was dialing up AOL or whatever. To my young mind, it was growling at me, ready to pounce – at night I imagined monsters between closet clothes that could only talk in modem snow.
After what happened on Sunday, those monsters are back, only they’re growling at me through cracks in reality.
I’m pretty sure I’m going crazy. By the time I finish this post I’m pretty sure I’ll be gone.
Friday was nothing like now. I was still so happy after Tokie was able to find my Ghost, and I had nothing to look forward to but summer bliss. Ai contacted me, inviting me to her birthday party on Sunday, but I did my best to ignore her – I didn’t want to get involved in her special blend of insanity.
She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and seemed to turn my blatant rejection into a definite meeting time of noon. I paid her no mind, and had a great Saturday – even taking care of my pile of dirty clothes made humongous by all the sweat of studying for finals. I also got a chance to see Thor (the Asgardian parts were better than the Earthly silliness) and caught up on my Catherine import for the PS3. By the time I was able to pass the first few levels, after countless attempts, my dreams were filled with evil blocks hanging above the void.
When I woke up on Sunday, the first thought that came to mind was how great Ai was, and how I was so terribly excited to meet her at noon. I didn’t quite know why my mind was acting that way, since the last thing I wanted to do was see her. Still, as I took a shower and ate a late breakfast, I became convinced that there was nothing I would rather do than celebrate her 16th birthday.
At one point, I took the Working Assets pad of paper by the phone, and tried to write down “I hate Ai”, but it just came out “I heart Ai!!!!” with a flourish of extra hearts.
Before I had time to properly freak out, there was a knock at the door. Ai, with one knock for each bong of the Campanile clock tower on campus a few blocks away.
“I’m so excited that you can make it!” She was about my height, with long, curly hair and naturally tan skin. She had on a faded red Fire Escape t-shirt, and store-new dark navy jeans, with excessive cuffs. I don’t have things for girls, but she was without doubt the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
“Come in!” I said, despite myself. She took off her maroon All Stars and arranged them carefully by the door. Sekigai and Shigai (my blog-anonymous roommates) had went to the Berkeley Bowl a few minutes earlier, so I was left alone with Ai as she glanced around the apartment, her neck twisting her eager eyes about like a barn owl.
“Oh, I really love this place! I’ll have to come over again sometime.” She motioned for me to approach the door, and despite myself I quickly gathered my bag and jacket, slipping on my sandals by toe touch.
“Sure! No problem. We’d better go, so we won’t be late to your party.” It started to dawn on me that maybe Ai was having more influence on me than I’d like to believe, but even that pang of doubt was quickly wiped away by what I’d have to call bliss. Just thinking of her made me want to follow her every footstep.
Which was convenient, because as soon as I locked the door that’s exactly what I did. We went downstairs, into the bright yet slightly breezy day, and I followed her home like a hungry stray cat. Well, it was a bit more complicated than that, since it seemed like we were walking for a good 40 minutes, all the way across Berkeley. For the life of me, I can’t remember the path we took, but I do recall this vacant lot, full of tall grasses and weeds, and surrounded by a chain-link fence.
I remember standing next to the fence with Ai, poking my hands through the rusty holes, and then suddenly we were in her house.
“Did you like that? It’s all the juvenile fiction she reads, with magic wardrobes and houses between houses.” A woman greeted us as she closed the door. She was tall, with red hair, and then I remembered Kaia’s and Tokie’s recent blog posts, the ones I made sure not to believe. It was A-Bell, Ai’s godmother and member of the Collective.
“Sometimes I forget to make everyone else forget that we live here,” Ai said, as she carefully placed her shoes on a wooden rack. “Then we have everyone lined up outside, stepping in the bushes and trying to get a peek at us.”
“She’s not kidding.” A-Bell motioned for my bag and coat, and I cheerfully gave them to her like it was something I did everyday. “Every time she wakes up in a variant, we have to hide the house before everyone in a ten mile radius wants to join our non-existent cult.”
“So I have to fog everyone’s minds. I always hate to do that, but sometimes I have to.” Ai took my hand and walked me into the living room, which looked remarkably normal, with a tan fabric couch covered by blankets and pillows, a well-worn coffee table, and most of the free space alternatively taken up by books and plants. The only conspicuously absent item was a TV of any sort. “Yeah, my moms aren’t into TV. If I have to watch, I do it behind closed doors.”
She sat me down on the couch, which looked like someone had just woken up from it a few minutes ago, and touched me carefully on the forehead with the back of her right hand.
“Oh, that’s not good. I don’t want to give you a fever with all of the pushing. I’m going to let go now, but please don’t try to run for the door – it won’t open for you.”
With that, the fog rolled away from my mind, leaving me confused and annoyed. “How the hell did you get me to come here! I told you before, I don’t want want to deal with your craziness!” I started to get up from the couch, and she didn’t motion to stop me.
“Mom, this is Emily. It’s hard to believe, but she’s the Witness for this variant.”
A-Bell was dressed in gray sweatpants, and a long sleeved, dark brown wool sweater, with a white dress shirt poking out at the wrists and neck. She came out of the kitchen with a ceramic mug of hot water, which she handed over to me. The mug was red, with a multicolor CXNU logo on it. “Come in the kitchen and pick out your tea.”
I still wanted to run, but she was so matter-of-fact about it all, that I couldn’t help but be interested in just what the fuck was going on. So I followed her back into the kitchen, which was just on the border between cleanliness and clutter – for example, pots were either hanging neatly, or sitting empty and aimless on the stove top. On the counter, next to seedlings in old peanut butter jars, was a candled birthday cake, chocolate frosting with “We Love You, Ai!” piped in white on the top.
“We really are glad you could make it today.” A-Bell put a plastic container full to bursting of tea bags on the table, on top of a pile of open books. I put down the mug, and fingered through them while I looked over at the refrigerator. It was filled from top to bottom of pictures, most of a tall, dark-skinned man and his constant companion, a pale woman who went from street punk to mommy casual over the years of images. Even without the pictures of baby and toddler Ai with them, it was clear they were her biological parents.
She caught my staring, and leaned against the edge of the sink, fussing with a few stray dirty dishes. “Everyone misses John and Laura so much, especially Ai. She was just old enough to catch the full impact of their absence.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to them?” I finally picked out a green tea with Korean writing on it.
“When they came to take Ai, she was only 5. John did his best, but they killed him without hesitation. That’s when Frisbee…. Laura….. started down the inevitable path to Point Zero. You know what I’m talking about, right?”
“Mom! She’s a hostile Witness, OK?” Ai yelled at us from the couch. “She knows more of the truth than most anyone else alive, but she still can’t believe it!”
A-Bell shook her head back into a smile, and walked back into the living room. I followed, almost tripping over a stray stack of books, including a small pile of Bibles.
“I see you’ve met our ever-expanding library.” A-Bell picked up a random volume, and turned to the title page. “Ah yes…. this is a history of quantum computing, from Variant 15. It lists 6 generations of qubit manipulation, since the late 40s. You’re not going to find this one at Berkeley Main.”
“Most Collective members like to collect things from the Variants. Mom likes to read about worlds that no longer exist. After a while, the books started to take over the house. Amber doesn’t like that at all.”
Amber was Ai’s other godmother, and A-Bell’s partner. I was starting to remember more of what I read in the antizine Fragments that Kaia posted.
“I see you’re taking sides again.” She walked over and rubbed her hands through Ai’s curls, provoking a giggle. “That’s fine, as long as you get it out of your system before she gets back home.”
Off in the corner, I noticed a few blue, plastic milk crates full of records.
“Ah yes…. Amber loves to collect vinyl. It would be too obvious to go after Collective bands, so she just cherry picks the greatest unknown punk outfits from every variant.”
“I keep trying to convince her to either sign up for a KALX shift, or just put up a pirate radio station and broadcast the heck out of her collection. She never agrees!” Ai feigned her absolute wrath with shaking fists. “Oh. OK.” She started to look around like an owl again. “Speaking of….”
My eyes suddenly failed. From the kitchen, there was a twisting of the walls and furniture, like a photo being crumpled. Out of that distortion walked Amber, holding two paper grocery bags, followed close behind by who could only be Cassandra and Helena.
Like I said, I’m totally certifiable now. They didn’t climb in the windows, or step through some trap door. They parted the curtains of the universe and slipped right through.
I don’t know what to think. I don’t know if I can even trust my thoughts any more, especially after what happened next.
“Bunny, they didn’t have your favorite carrots!” Amber yelled over to Ai, who brought forth a theatrical pout. “But I did find apples almost as hard as rocks!”
Apparently that was a good thing, since Ai immediately held up her hands, only to be met by a crisp Fuji.
Helena was wearing a beautiful pink kimono, accented by sakura. She made a beeline for the record crates, and fingered through them in earnest, brushing aside the ends of her long, clear, fiber optic wig which constantly transitioned through the spectrum.
Cassandra was wearing a holographic dress, that looked a lot like the one that Yuma from Die Database wore in the Karmic Freedom video. She sat down on the floor, in front of a comfy-looking chair, and started playing with the air like it was a puppy. Her dress was harboring active thunder clouds, floating across her stomach.
I could smell a match going out, and then Amber walked out of the kitchen wearing a “Kiss The Cook” apron and carrying the birthday cake.
The world stopped for a few moments, as we all broke copyrights and wished Ai a musical birthday. Her face lit up like a lighthouse shining in all directions. I was happy that I could be there to see her like that.
Time passed in strange ways. I remember talking to everyone for hours, especially Helena, who turned out to be way past awesome. She had literally seen every bit of the world, interacting with more people than I could possible imagine. Her experience, put into the body of a perpetual 16 year old, made her seem almost Platonic – where everyone else was a shadow, she was the original girl. I could also tell that she was absolutely dangerous, like a floor full of tacks pointing upwards.
As for Cassandra… she’s just out there. When she looks at you, it’s like you’re a goldfish in a bowl. She can see the invisible shape of the world that keeps everyone else swimming in circles. I would say that she’s nice, but it honestly would be a guess. She does seem to have a weird sense of humor, though – she laughs at your jokes before you even start to tell them.
Like I said, my memory seems to have played tricks on me, because I remember spending the night there, hanging out with the girls until well in the morning. I also remember finishing my piece of cake, and it was 1 in the afternoon on Sunday. No conversations with Helena, no slumber party, nothing but a mouth full of sweetness.
Ai seemed satisfied, at least. After the put down her empty, frosting-smeared plate, she started to dance around the room to an air full of silence, coming up with moves that seemed familiar, yet were completely foreign to me. I soon realized that Ai collected dances from long dead worlds, and I marveled at those forgotten rhythms.
Eventually, she stopped, and motioned for me to stand. At first, I thought she wanted me to dance with her, but then I could feel the sudden gravity of it all.
“Everyone, thank you so much for being here at my last birthday party ever!” She walked over and gave Amber and A-Bell a group hug. Cassandra and Helena then walked over to me, and put their arms around my shoulders.
“I’ll never forget this day, not even when we rejoin the White for good.” I didn’t like the vibe I was getting from her at all. It was like she was about to drive a school bus over a cliff, for the good of the students.
Ai then walked over to me, and put her hands on my waist, like the 4 of us were going to slow dance. “You’re the Witness. We’ve got something to show you.” With that, she pulled me in tight, and before I could recognize her perfume, the house folded away, leading us standing in the cold, on a metal bridge painted black. A river slowly flowed far beneath, and a few cars passed by every minute, their lights almost blinding.
I knew this place! It was the picture at the top of Miranda’s blog – the Steel Bridge in Portland.
Ai, Helena and Cassandra disappeared from the walkway, leaving me alone with the night, and the rumbling traffic.
“Alright, you’ve found me!” I turned around only to have my heart skip a beat. Miranda.
“What the fuck is going on!” I didn’t know if I should run up and hug her, or run away screaming.
She slowly walked up to me, with a recently shaved head, and wearing a fancy blue outdoors jacket, the kind fashionable hikers wear. Even in the shadow, her face and hands shined brightly.
“I’m going on, that’s what.” Her fingers were like glowsticks. “I’m finally etched, ready to embrace my birthright.” She was barely an arm’s length away – behind her, I could see the light of an approaching Max train, crossing the bridge eastward.
“Where were you all of this time? Everyone was looking for you!” The train rumbled closer.
“Ah… this time.” Her face was grinning unnaturally, like a statue carved out of ice. “Don’t you just love that October air? I know I do… it reminds me of all of the times, in all of the variants, I came on this bridge to kill myself.”
With that, and before I could stop her, she ran across the almost empty lane of cars, into the path of the train. She quickly disappeared under the churning wheels, but no one seemed to notice. No squeaking breaks, no spattered blood, no horrific expressions from the riders. Instead, the train passed into the night, leaving Miranda sitting on the tracks, completely intact.
After a few moments, I got up the courage and ran over to her, trying to pick her off the ground. Her hands were alternatively freezing cold and burning hot.
“Emily dear, don’t you worry another minute. After the Fifth Event, once I remembered everything, there was nothing more to be anxious about. The Nameless will take care of all of us.”
My mind was racing. The Nameless? She just was run over by a train! The Fifth Event is supposed to be in October of 2011.
Her hands started to raise slowly. Soon her body was upside-down and moving up and away at an angle – her Nike running shoes floating far above where her head should be, like she was swimming down to me at the bottom of the pool, in black leggings with a sparking, silver aura.
“Please don’t hold me back. I have a lot of work to do.” I tried to grab on to her wrists, to no avail – it was as if my hands just slipped right through them.
“Miranda! What’s happening?” Before I realized it, another car was coming so I ran to the walkway. When I turned back around and looked up, she was gone.
I didn’t know. I still don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever know.
No one else was waiting for me on the bridge. I didn’t have my coat or anything, and my sandaled feet were freezing, so I walked towards downtown, hoping I could find someone, anyone, to help. Before I reached the end of the bridge, Cassandra and Helena appeared in the shadows in front of me, and folded me back to my apartment.
It was daylight. Was I really back home?
“Don’t worry, we’re back to May 15, in Berkeley.” Cassandra said this with a hand salute. Then she took off my bag and gave it to me, my jacket poking out past the zipper.
“We’ll come for you again on Tuesday at 11AM.” Helena smoothed out her kimono with her hands. “The Nameless would like an audience with you.”
Helena gave a smile and the double peace sign, and then embraced her sister into nothingness.
Like I said, I’m going to go off and be crazy now.
It’s time to learn how to speak in modem snow.