From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Abandonware

My sister Andrea died in a bicycle-car collision when I was 16. My uncle came in to help Dad and me go through her stuff, weaning us from box after box sent to Goodwills or donated to advocacy raffles, but Dad and I both kept things. Dad kept her highschool soccer medals and her autographed copy of Neuromancer. I kept a case of zip disks, a zip drive, and the ancient Mac Quadra she used them on.

I spent that weekend avoiding my father (who thought we needed to Talk with a capital T) by setting up the Quadra on a corner of my desk, which turned into half my desk and most of my legroom. I spent hours unsnarling cables and coaxing life into a machine obsolete since the late ’90s. Why? Andy had some overclocked Alienware monstrosity with aspirations of becoming Skynet for her serious work, but the Quadra was her baby. While Dad Talked through my door about coming to terms with our grief and coming together as a family and letting go, I was bent over with the edge of the desk cutting into my chest, holding a flashlight in my mouth, trying to screw the monitor’s cord into the tower.

Letting go was giving up. I had to get back in touch.

#

I sat at my desk, feet jammed between the Quadra’s tower and my Dell’s, window cracked to let in the wet air. It’d been raining. Andy loved how the air smelled after it rained; I didn’t smell anything. I was just looking through Andy’s zip disks, thinking about her.

I opened one case and a disc fell out, dropping between the wheels on my chair. It’d been stuck between the pages, not fit into one of the pockets, and that was weird, considering Andy. Whatever the original label said had been worked over in sharpie, and the new label read only BURN THIS DISK.

Obviously, she hadn’t.

Andy was always open with me–ten years older and thinking she could tell me the secrets of life. She wanted me to tell her about girlfriends and classes and any juvenile delinquency I got into, and she told me about alcohol and sex and everything Dad didn’t want to talk about, like the time she got busted sneaking into a topless bar. I couldn’t think what she’d want to burn.

I turned on the zip drive, booted up the computer, and stuck the disk in. It was an early drive and an early disk, and it made a lot of noise for 100 megs, but it worked pretty well. Andy kept it fixed up.

The disk was named EraseMe. It had one file in it, a 77Mb document named SELDON.crn.

Dad knocked on my door. “David? Are you busy?”

“I’m a bit busy, Dad.” I wasn’t paying attention, not even to the way my shoulders knotted up. With Dad, sometimes if you just repeat a few of his phrases, he’ll think you’re having a conversation.

“I was thinking that we could have a night out, the two of us. Go down to Lazlo’s and have a couple of burgers.” And Talk, he didn’t add.

A Google search on the computer that could handle the browsers that could handle the internet–that’s to say, not the Quadra–told me that .crn files belonged to an obscure little program called CoadRunner, coad as in code but also road without the r. Its logo was a genericized cartoon of the blue bird I loved until I was seven, before I started empathizing with the coyote more.

“Not hungry,” I said. Leave me alone, I didn’t.

I poked around on the hard drive, which was bare except for BBEdit, Chess, Lemmings, and a folder full of bitmaps. I flipped open the disk case and ran through the disks. Digging through her stuff, I could forget how much I missed her. Sort of. Not really.

“We can go later?” Dad offered.

“Yeah, maybe.” Andy was brilliant, and not just in the ten-years-older way. She tried to hook me early: programming (her job), soccer (her favorite weekend activity), science fiction (the only books she’d touch). None of it took, but I can still explain relational databases while scoring a goal, and then I can explain the three laws of robotics if you’re still interested. Andy was also an organization freak. Her zip disks were color-coded by topic. Programs were alphabetized, backups ordered by date. There was an empty space in the programs where EraseMe should’ve been, back in the Q-R-S-T section.

“I’ll be downstairs if you want to talk?” Dad said.

I didn’t want to talk. I was pretty sure I’d never want to talk. CoadRunner was stuck between ClarisWorks and the Exile Trilogy games, and I popped the disk into the drive and started the installer. “Okay, dad. Later.”

CoadRunner installed and I ejected that disk and put EraseMe back in. I copied SELDON.crn into its folder and opened it up.

All it gave me was a black window with green text, Matrix-style. Nothing else. I thought maybe it wanted me to register, even though the Quadra wasn’t connected to the internet.

YOUR FULL NAME:

I typed in “David Elliot Knowles.”

ZIP CODE:

I put in that. It asked me a few more questions, then the date. Then a number from 1-5. Then it said DON’T GO TO SCHOOL TOMORROW and quit. Pretty pointless.

I opened up BBEdit and opened SELDON.crn, which acted like a folder and gave me a list of files. One of the files was named CHOICES.crn, in a subfolder called INCLUDES, so I looked at that. It had a simple array with five elements, numbered one through five instead of zero through four: Good luck, Bad luck, Friends, Family, Misc. I’d hit 2 when I tested the program. Bad luck.

I ran the program again, filled out all my information, and then hit 1 instead. This time it said CHECK THE STREET GUTTER TWO HOUSES DOWN and quit again.

I poked around a bunch of the other INCLUDES/ files to see what I could understand. It’d been a long time since I programmed anything; when Andy started coaching me on how to make a tic-tac-toe game in Visual Basic, I’d stopped paying attention and never picked it up again. After a while I started going crosseyed over the symbols in SELDON, so I powered down both computers.

I’d poke my head in on Andy, on a normal day. Bother her about new movies or ask if she wanted to put in a racing game. That day I sat for a moment, not knowing what to do.

I went downstairs, thinking I could use some time out of the house.

I’d forgotten that Dad was downstairs. He was pouring himself coffee from the coffee machine in the living room, ignoring the evening news droning in the background. I almost ran back to my room, but Dad saw me.

“David,” he said. “Sit down.” He tried to sound like he was just suggesting it. I went down to the couch and sat, toying with the loose threads on the armrest covers.

Dad sat in the big overstuffed chair under the lamp across from me, cattycorner from the TV which was talking about a mining accident someplace that wasn’t America. “We should talk about Andrea,” he said, then drank his coffee like he was trying to wash a bitter taste into his mouth.

I don’t like talking about things. I didn’t want to talk about that, but I had to. It went something like this: he’d say something, everything jammed into past tense. How she was brilliant, how she used to make mile-deep nachos, how I must have favorite memories too, didn’t I? I’d admit that maybe I did. He’d say “Tell me.” He’d lean forward and look at me like he was about to break down, and I’d look away. Not talking made him talk. I had to talk to get away from that.

I told him that she took me to a baseball game and I didn’t care about the game but I had the best ballpark dogs. I admitted that she wrote a new ending to Interstellar Pig because I didn’t like the one in the book. Hers wasn’t as good. I liked it better.

Andrea should have been there to get me out.

Andrea was my sister. Dad wasn’t. I couldn’t share Andrea being my sister with him, but he kept asking. He kept trying to share Andrea being his daughter with me, like I could reminisce about her in her baby jumper hanging onto mom, or like I’d want to if I could.

By the time Dad let me go and I headed out the door, I was shaking and I didn’t want to be.

Andy would notice if I was in a bad mood, and she’d come play Quake III or Red Faction with me. Dad was clueless as to video games, and I was clueless as to him. Andrea could have noticed that I hated that Talk and run interference. Now it was just me and Dad and no way out.

I went around the block twice, down to the park, back up to the roundabout, before remembering the message in the SELDON program. I knew it was a stupid thing to do, fortune-cookie advice for the internet age, but I checked the house two down from mine anyway. Nothing interesting. I went two houses over in the other direction, sorting through the stuff in the gutter with the toe of my sneaker until I saw something papery and leaned over to grab it.

Crumpled under a drift of sticks and leaves, soaked through and dirty, was a $20 bill.

#

“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” I told Dad when I came back in. Dad looked at me with a sad smile.

“No one would make you go to school this soon after the accident,” he said, making me feel stupid for bringing it up. How was I supposed to know? The last family death had been my grandfather on my mother’s side, who I’d met all of twice. Before that it’d been mom, who died when I was three.  Dad and Andy remembered her; I never did. They don’t tell you about this in the school’s attendance policy. Or they did, and I didn’t pay attention.

So I stayed home. Dad went to work. I ate the frozen lasagna someone had left for us and played on my computer and sometimes lurked in Andrea’s old doorway, watching light fall through the window and creep across her too-empty floor. I wanted her to explain something to me–her program or Dad; either one. All I’d ever had to do was ask.

Sometime after five Dad knocked on my door and, without even waiting, pushed it open.

I was going to give him an earful. Maybe. I wasn’t much for arguments, especially not with Dad. But Dad looked shellshocked–like he had when he’d met me at the door and made me sit down and told me that Andrea had died less than two blocks from our door. There’s been an accident on Rand street. The look was toned down, but I recognized it.

“David, I thought you should know,” he said. “West High’s closed for a while. There was a bomb.”

Andrea could have explained the look that went across my face: parser error. “A bomb?”

“A cherry bomb or something,” Dad said. “It went off in the boy’s locker room. There was one kid taken to the emergency room. I just thought you should know it’s closed.”

“There was a bomb,” I said. That’s as far as my brain would go. “In the locker room?”

“I think they have someone in custody,” Dad responded.

I looked back at the Dell, then at the Quadra. “I’m going to–thanks,” I said. I wasn’t sure what else to say. “Could you–?”

“Yeah,” Dad said. “I just wanted you to know.”

At least he got that it was time to leave. He walked out toward the stairs, without pushing the door all the way closed.

Don’t go to school. I went to Google News and typed in my school and city, and it was already up on half a dozen websites. Homemade bomb. Boys’ locker room. 2:05, right at the start of fifth period, which was Physical Recreation for me. I didn’t need to read past that. I went straight back to Andy’s Quadra.

The INCLUDES/ files made no sense to me, but this time, I went into the folder called CORE/. It had one file, _MANCY.crn, which took up 76 of the 77 megabytes of the SELDON program. Failing to recognize that 76 megabytes is probably enough space for every American novel in plain text, I opened it. Then I had to wait thirteen minutes for it to open, pacing because the Quadra wouldn’t hurry.

_MANCY.crn started off easy. Big blocks of comment text talking about date started, date completed, copyright Andrea Sophia Knowles, revisions, bug history; I scrolled past that to get at the code. Then I wished I hadn’t.

It was gibberish to me. The one thing I could identify was a function library, but even knowing what it was, I couldn’t make sense of it. It called double- and triple-variables, set up regular expressions which took up hundreds of lines, had functions so deeply recursive and such a complex net of file requires and cross-references that the entire thing was one big knot. It could’ve been a map of the universe. I couldn’t tell.

Nine minutes in and I felt like I was choking on the code. The logic was too dense, and my mind was turning into a Klein bottle following it–Andrea had a false Klein bottle one of her boyfriends gave her, blue blown glass, and I couldn’t figure it out any more than I could figure out this. I went online on my Dell and searched for .crn guides, but the only things I found were a bunch of ancient Usenet groups. No help there.

Maybe it was coincidence. Some really weird, freaky coincidence that it just so happened to spew that message the one day my boring, quiet school got interesting.

And maybe it wasn’t.

#

Andy complained sometimes that you couldn’t make random numbers with a computer program. Something about computers being logical and logic not being random. I had no idea if that applied to random chance, and she always spun it out to some theory about chaotic systems and the logical laws of physics and at that point my eyes always glazed over. I wanted to be sure that I was being ridiculous. There was no way a program on a zip disk could predict the future.

I just didn’t know how to look into that.

I really should have known by then not to go downstairs. The problem was, upstairs was just bedrooms and a bathroom, and my window wasn’t made for climbing out of. I wanted out of the house.

I don’t think Dad, staring at the TV without really watching it, wanted to let me.

He stood up when I came down, turning the TV off and setting the remote on its endtable. “Are you hungry?” he asked. “I was just about to boil up some spaghetti…”

I told him I wasn’t.

“Why don’t you come help me in the kitchen?” he said. “Maybe you’ll work up an appetite.”

There was no way to get away.

Dad made this sort of pasta sauce where you only simmered the tomatoes for a few minutes, “to keep them fresh.” I was cutting tomatoes into squishy cubes, thinking about red being the color of blood and white being the color of both the cutting board and the background of the code program and the program itself being thousands or millions of letters, numbers, symbols, totally without a matching metaphor in Dad’s spaghetti dinner, and on a whim I asked, “Do you still miss mom?”

Dad, who was crushing garlic, looked like I’d come up behind him and startled him. “I haven’t thought about her in a long time,” he lied. I could tell he was lying because he’s been a lousy liar my whole life. He used to tell us that cough medicine tasted yummy, like we wouldn’t be able to tell as soon as we tasted it, like we wouldn’t be wise to that line every time thereafter.

I wanted to turn around and walk straight back to my room and shut the door on Dad and our shrinking family and how hard it was just to talk to him. I think I managed a couple words before I did, something about needing some time out and he could finish this without me, right? I sat at my computer and held onto my mouse and keyboard and I thought: Dad wanted a nice nuclear family, didn’t he? A wife, two kids, maybe a dog someday. Instead they didn’t get a second kid until ten years after the first one, then mom died, then Andrea, until it was just the two of us. Just two, and every time Dad looked at me he was seeing the last person in his family not to die.

It wasn’t like I could do anything. Not like I could bring back the dead, not like I could have known–

Andy had to have known.

She had a program that knew everything. I would check that every morning before I put on a shirt, if I had it. What sort of program warns me about a bomb threat and then doesn’t tell my sister not to ride her bike? SELDON had to have known. Andy had to have known.

Why’d she want to burn that disk?

I punched in Andy’s demographics.

#

That morning I’d overheard Dad calling the school and telling them that I was still in shock over Andy’s death. Maybe I was. I missed her, yeah, but I wasn’t crying or screaming or anything. All I can remember was a dull ache and curiosity about her Quadra, her pet projects, that code. I felt like she had part of her that she kept trying to share and it was hidden in this computer, part of her I never got to see because programming and soccer and science fiction were all like trigonometry–things I was good at, but didn’t enjoy.

That’s why I put in Andrea’s information. I wanted to know what was going on between her and SELDON.

I selected Friends first.

Friends read EVERYONE MISSES YOU, BUT IT’S OVER NOW.

It quit. This time, I was glad.

A bunch of Andy’s friends had been at her funeral. A couple of her highschool friends flew in. One of them wished she hadn’t been cremated because he had a first serialization copy of The War of the Worlds in Pearson’s Weekly he would have let Dad bury with her. Of course they missed her. Andy was great. I tried something else.

Misc. IT’S OVER NOW.

Maybe there wasn’t much you could tell to someone who ended up lying on the side of the road and died before the ambulances could get to her.

Bad luck. THERE’S NOTHING LEFT. IT’S OVER NOW.

Bad luck gave me the obvious answer. She was 28 and brilliant and just riding her bike when a car came out of nowhere and hit her. Dumb luck. Bad luck.

Good luck. IT’S OKAY. IT’S OVER NOW.

That’s when my hand started shaking.

That line made it sound like a suicide. Like something in her life caught up to her and she ran straight into a Subaru to escape it. Like we were going to be that grieving family on the news, everybody knows the one; the family that says “There was never any indication, she always seemed so happy.”

And I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be told that by a stupid secret computer program that had no way of knowing anything and still knew my sister better than I did. I didn’t want it to know anything.

I punched in 3 for Family.

YOU SHOULD HAVE BURNED THE DISK.

I kicked the power strip and both the computers went down. I shot back in my computer chair and jerked to a stop against my bed, both black monitors staring at me. YOU SHOULD HAVE BURNED THE DISK. 3 for family. 3 for Dad trying to Talk while I installed this. 3 for me reading her handwriting in sharpie on the label. 3 for me.

I should have burned the disk?

Good luck. I could stick to good luck from now on. If it was even real. If SELDON.crn actually knew anything and wasn’t just random words and a few coincidences. Then I thought of the bomb in the locker room, and how I could have been there. I thought of Andy and her insistence that nothing computerized was random. Bad luck. Someone was injured. I could have been.

Burn this disk. Why didn’t it just tell me to beware the Ides of March?

I rolled back over and flipped the powerstrip back on with my toe. I booted both of my computers up and made myself open SELDON again.

For a long time I just stared at the input box. After a few minutes I wrote in my name, but the date I gave was the day Andy died. I punched in 3 for family.

YOUR SISTER LOVES YOU.

I think I was shaking again.

I wrote in Andy’s info for that day, her deathday, and stopped on the prompt. Good luck? Bad luck? She’d died–-most of the answers seemed obvious, and some, I didn’t want to know. I went with the one I didn’t want to know instead of the ones I already did. Good luck.

A TRULY RANDOM CHANCE IS WAITING JUST OUTSIDE THE DOOR, good luck read. Then for bad luck it just said MAYBE PREDESTINATION’S NOT THAT BAD.

I wanted to punch through the monitor.

I tried typing in WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME? and got an ERROR: INDEX OUT OF BOUNDS as soon as I hit W. Same with 0, with 6, with T for TELL ME WHAT YOU ARE. I closed all the code windows, shut the computer down, ran downstairs so I could deal with something that wasn’t it, and ended up running back up with a bowl of spaghetti and a mumbled “Sorry Dad I just don’t want to talk right now” because I couldn’t leave it alone. My eyes were burning. I told myself it was from onions. Dad never simmered them enough.

I wanted to tear that program apart. I wanted to print out all those Usenet group pages, print out all that code, sit at my desk and go through it and learn it and make it tell me what it knew. It had to tell me. Computers weren’t smarter than people; people programmed them. They were just better at crunching numbers.

Sometime after my spaghetti was cold Dad knocked on my door again. “David,” he said, “I know you want to be alone, and it’s all right that you take some time for that…”

I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to solve this.

Dad pushed open my door and saw me, and then he just walked in. He pulled my chair around to face him and he sat down on the edge of my bed and I hunched down and didn’t want him there.

“David,” he said, “turn off the computers. Please.”

I didn’t want to, but turning off the computers gave me a way not to look at him for a minute or so.

“We need to talk through this,” he said, like there was a way to. If he’d known programming maybe we could have talked through SELDON, but Andy was dead. No logic, no reasoning, just dead and what was I supposed to say about that?

“I don’t want to,” I said, and Dad’s face tightened up. I wasn’t the problem there. I wasn’t the thing being impossible to solve.

“It’s not healthy to keep everything inside of you,” Dad said. “I know this is horrible and I wish I knew how to help you, but you and Andy always had it so together,” he said, and Andy was the one who’d always had it together, and I was stuck here between SELDON and Dad with no way to deal with either one.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t healthy or Dad couldn’t help. What mattered was that I had to know why Andrea had a program that could tell the future, I had to know and Andy wasn’t there to tell me, and for a second it mattered more that she couldn’t tell me than she wasn’t there.

It was just for a second. Really. Just a second and I caught myself. I wanted Andy back more than I wanted to understand this, but I was sitting there with my mouth open and I must have been shaking or something because I remember Dad reaching over to me and then I was crushed against his chest, crying.

I really hadn’t wanted to cry.

He held onto me for I don’t know how long. The black space behind my eyelids was warmer than the black window I’d been staring at, and the thump-thump-thump I couldn’t block out coming from Dad’s heart started blocking out the hum of electricity in the room.

I didn’t know what I was doing. More than not knowing .crn programming, more than not knowing how logic and chance and the future fit together, I wanted Andrea back and I couldn’t have that so I was getting in fights with a program she’d made. It didn’t make sense to me.

When Dad finally let me go, there was a wet patch on his shirt where my eyes had been.

We sat for a while. We talked about nothing. He left me alone after that, staring at the blank screen of Andy’s Quadra. It’d been supposed to make this all easier.

I booted it up, feeling horrible for doing it. I opened up SELDON thinking I didn’t want to.

I wrote in my information and the correct date.

1 for Good luck. TRUST THAT BAD FEELING.

5 for Misc.

This time it thought for a while. I could hear the Quadra’s harddrive struggling like I’d tried to install Doom on it and it couldn’t handle that at all. After a while it gave me my answer.

GOODBYE, DAVID.

#

That night I snuck out while Dad was sleeping and went out back to our firepit. I was wearing my black Metallica hoodie and cargo pants but white sneakers; I guess I blended in with the darkness anyway. There were stars out and a bit more than a half moon, so it wasn’t hard to see.

I took all the wet leaves and stuff out of the pit and cleared off the gravel around it. Then I put down the grate and some charcoal and a shoebox. The shoebox was full of shredded newspaper and matchbooks and some oil–whatever I thought would burn. And it had the zip disk.

I wasn’t out there in my suit or my dress shoes, but I wasn’t sure people wore suits to cremations anyway. I poured some lighter fluid over everything and lit the charcoal. Then I crouched there and watched it all burn. It stank, and it smoldered, and it flared up when the matches caught, and oily smoke went up through the trees.

It took a long time to burn down, and the zip disk wasn’t gone like I had hoped. But it was blackened and melted, which was enough. I dumped a bucket of water into the pit and stirred up the ashes.

I snuck back up to my room. On the way there I stopped outside Dad’s door, and I heard him turn over on his bed. I heard him adjust the sheets. I didn’t listen long.

My Dell was asleep. The Quadra hummed at me and I sat down, trashed the SELDON program, and turned it off. Lots cleaner than the fire. Of course it didn’t feel the same.

I changed into pajamas and lay down, pulling the sheets up over my head. Andy had always been smarter than me; I never could get into her interests, but I trusted her. I’d forget about SELDON, if I could. Maybe tomorrow I’d play some Lemmings or Exile on the Quadra, maybe I’d find somewhere to spend that twenty I got from the gutter. I’d try, anyway. And maybe tomorrow I’d talk to Dad about something that wasn’t Andy or her death.

Maybe letting go was something I did need to learn.

I fell asleep thinking of the fire, the stench of the smoke as it rose through the branches. It’d been dark and solid, and it went straight up and disappeared against the sky until only the absence of stars told me where it was. I fell asleep thinking of absence, SELDON and Andy and a way of knowing the future, and then I was out, and I don’t remember my dreams.

Variously known as a student of Linguistics, a web developer, a retail clerk at a video game store, a graduate of the 2008 Clarion West class, a writer of speculative fiction, and a purveyor of medieval armor and fine baked goods, An mostly resides in places contrary to consensus reality but is compelled to list a university town in the American Midwest as home on most official documents. Fiction bearing the mark of this elusive author can be found in an increasing variety of “here”s and “there”s, and more general information can be found at http://an.owomoyela.net.