Lately I’ve been immersing myself in the works of O. Henry so much so that I decided to write my own for geeks like me. Imitating another author’s writing style is not as easy as it first sounds — mostly because the gauge for success is rather ambiguous — but anything that helps me become a better writer . . . well, I’m not going to ignore.
Regrettably, the sibling response was decidedly mixed. Katie really enjoyed it, while my dearest brother after some consideration responded with a ‘meh.’ Needless to say, I’m anticipating proofreading his next law brief. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story — more than Sean, at least.
Luddites in Love
With the exception of honeybees, ants, and reality TV starlets, the modern American citizen communicates more than any other species on earth. Since the dawn of the iPod, it is said that the human species has stumbled upon the evolutionary fast-track to cyborg-ification. Cell phones strapped to our ears; fingers typing out ten texts per picosecond; cat videos by the billions streaming on YouTube. From dawn to dark, we expose our life’s tapestry of photos, quotes, and gossip before an expectant public like specimens in a digital zoo, to be ogled, examined, and meme-ed at the first opportunity. The sum total of pheromones exuded by the world’s ant population palls to a day’s worth of status updates from an average college sorority.
The spirit of wonder is dead; adventure lays comatose, pale remnants of the pre-Google age. Before the coming of online searching and instant gratification, if a man wished to see Machu Pichu, he flew to Peru – or Disney World and lied to his friends. Today photos are uploaded in an instant, free-of-charge, and dismissed just as quickly.
We are witnessing a new era in human evolution. Men wake, net, shower, shave in that order. Network problems render a home PC worthless; “Printer’s down” is an accepted excuse in many schools for unfinished homework; ‘Trojan horse’ invokes more shrieks than ‘bomb,’ ‘grenade’ or ‘nuke.’ The pen, archaic; the paper antediluvian; the book, a passing fad.
Somewhere in the world Bill Gates is laughing.
Thus, it is truly passé to prefer anonymity: to hide one’s identity from the digital world. Some obsolete souls, I hear, can name all of their friends by name; others – tragic creatures! – count the sum total of acquaintances on a single hand. Still rarer are species of American male who hides his true face altogether, cloaking his identity in mystical allusions to popular fantasy realms: Middle Earth, Dantooine, Gotham, and Duckburg.
Simone Orcbane was one of those pariahs, a private reticent soul that somehow missed the dawn of the information age. In the play of life, there were players, writers, and audience, and Simone fell into the latter category. He did not own a Facebook account; he did not Tweet or blog; he owned an email address, but used it solely to activate his Xbox Live account. He played games and left the rest of the world alone.
By day, he worked in a library, too old and too poor to afford digital databases, DVDs, or even computers. At home in his parent’s basement, he reveled in books, movies and games from foregone times and worlds, ignoring so-called ‘reality’ and its fruitless obsession with impertinent details. Rick-rolls did not suggest Rick Ashley; Bad-ass did not invoke Chuck Norris; if Keanu Reeves was sad, that was his own damn problem.
Of his best friends and members of his Warcraft guild, Dragonette and pIzZaMaN, having never met, he knew nothing. Chatting online, he imagined them as they were: a level 80 elf lord and level 75 gnome wizard. All other information was immaterial. Nobody honestly reveals the intimate contents of their lives online anymore; after all he had lied on his own profile — a forty-five year-old Canadian pilot and kung-fu master. Therefore, he doubted Dragonette’s claims as scion of Aquaman, and that pIzZaMaN was in fact prime minister of Fiji.
Yet, the — probable — possibly that either of his friends may live alone, surrounded by nineteen cats, consuming his own weight in cheese puffs did not affect Simone nor stir any feelings of revulsion. As long as his teammates maintained their buffs during raids, the old proverb rang true: what the eyes don’t see, doesn’t hurt the heart.
On Monday the 23rd, with the forces of evil camped outside the oaken door of his keep, his mother descended into the unholy depths and summoned his assistance poolside. Simone sheathed his sword, pressed pause on the Xbox controller and shuffled to the base of the stairs. There she issued her proclamation.
“Patrick” – his mortal appellation – “come outside and clean off the pool. The pool guys will be here in a few minutes to winterize and I want it looking nice.”
Simone sighed. While her son strove to maintain a sense of aloof obscurity, his mother reveled in the opinions of her peers.
“Social status and appearance,” he mused trudging upstairs from both throne and keep. “Pathetic concerns of a frivolous society. Did Napoleon consider the feelings of Egypt? Did Caesar consult the opines of Gaul? Did the Queen of Blades administer to the whining of the Protoss empire? Like Hell! Next you’ll be telling me to clean the house for when the maid arrives.”
Now nothing in this world of ours exceeds the beauty of a rainstorm. Poets from the time of Tutankhamun have inscribed hieroglyphic ballads to drops of rain crashing upon the Nile basin. So too do the fallen leaves, Shelley’s “living hues,” enflame both soul and spirit weeks before winter’s bitter chill takes hold. Yet the combination of both rain and leaves, those pestilence-stricken multitude atop a drowned green tarp well . . .
“This sucks,” Simone sighed. No gas-powered blower to be found in the shed, merely the motorized dregs of summer: half-empty gas cans, tangled weed-wacker, blades, broken rakes, and a punctured inner-tube buried in owl droppings.
Like a paleontologist unearthing some fossilized skeleton, Simone carefully swept the layer of leaves and sticks from the buried tarp. His parents had opted for a motorized pool cover last year that opened and close with the turn of a key. The innovation helped reduce cleaning, but the extra weight after rain shower could damage the mechanism. Heck, a single cut could redirect his finances for graduate school.
After a half-hour, he finished relocating the contents of his private swamp to a wet pile near the lawn chairs, when a fierce wind raked through the surrounding forest. Force of chaos, bane of lawn care: the west wind barraged both boy and pool with a legion of dead, rotting corpses parachuting from treetops to the recently swept cover, where they submerged beneath shallow puddles of un-swept rainwater. Simone cursed his luck, the dictates of polite society, and (quietly) his mother.
“Screw public scrutiny,” he shouted throwing down his broom. “How long shall we suffer the stubborn biases of this world? The John Q. Public of the 21st century is a cult leader, and if we wish to retain our identity, we need to pour the red Kool-Aid censorship down the drain. Sleep naked in the park, run with scissors, mix milk with green tea for God’s sake. The hive-mind shall not have Simone Orcbane as its slave!”
And so he threw his instrument to the ground in protest, just as his mother thrust her head from an upstairs window. Quickly he dropped to the ground and faked an untied shoe.
“Patrick! The pool guys are here! Stop talking to yourself and start to work on that cover!”
“Oh, you didn’t have to do that,” came a voice behind him, and Simone felt a chill race down his back.
Simone had expected the pool guy to arrive like a ninja: quietly and unannounced (Really, what self-respecting service professional arrives announced and on-time?). That in itself offered little cause for agitation. That this particular flavor of handyman sported paint-thin jeans and a pair of X-chromosomes, he did not expect.
Amid the catalogue of his dreams and waking memories, he had never gazed upon a more perfect creature: eyes that sparkled like emerald rings; hair the color of dragon fire; a monochrome garden of lacey vines and petals along alabaster skin; a figure curved like a J. Scott Campbell centerfold. She smiled, and waves of relief coursed through his veins, the sensation of iced tea on a warm day, years of darkness lifted by a sunrise, his first Super Nintendo on Christmas morning. Yet, she was by all accounts a girl, equipped with bag of tools and hands splotched with grease.
Wonder and shock co-mingled like napalm in his brain, his reasoning and speech-centers were the first to melt. Now an impassive observer might stare knowingly at her jeans and company-emblazoned t-shirt and deduce her occupation as an employee of the Rosa Pools Inc. Simone had scanned both shirt and pants for several long seconds and finding no clear answers, sputtered a few guttural phrases that recalled to the ear a macaw parroting Mandarin.
“My dad called in sick today,” she said, somehow understanding, “and asked if I could help out at some of the nearby homes. I know it’s problematic, but if you wish to reschedule . . .”
With all the calm of Wall Street broker, Simone subtly suggested that rescheduling was out-of-the-question and gestured to the wet pile of leaves. The curvaceous employee of Rosa Pools Inc. stifled an impressive giggle at the young man’s composure and began rifling through her bag of tools.
“Well, it looks like you cleaned this mess pretty well,” she said staring at the collection of sodden flora on the concrete. “You clean up well.”
“Naa,” Simone muttered finally finding his voice, “there’s no blower and the pool looked like a scene from Dagobah. Didn’t know what I’d find underneath it all . . . ”
“What?” she exclaimed. “No X-wing?” Suddenly, the wind emerged again from the trees, rocking branches and their fragile cargo. With a sudden intensity, the girl threw out her hand as the gust exploded a dried pile of dead flora into an airborne swarm.
“Force push,” she said blushing somewhat. “It makes short work of lawncare.”
Then she smiled again. And Simone saw the world spiral out of control. Scotch-colored leaves fell upward to treetops; cats chased dogs; hot girls spoke Jedi.
“Michelle,” she said.
“P-patrick,” he stammered, remember his title in the 3D realm.
Together they cleaned the remaining leaves from the pool cover and with the turn of a key, watched as the cover coiled, revealing the clear freezing water below. Michelle unpacked a second ‘winter’ tarp and with Simone’s help stretched this thicker layer tight over the water. Michelle unscrewed bolts hidden below the concrete, while Simone, securing the corners first, clipped tarp to the exposed bolt. The winter tarp was porous and would allow any melting snow to trickle into the water below.
While they worked, Michelle talked of Hyrule and Earthsea, of Peter Jackson and Chris Nolan, and of Batman and One Piece. She would be graduating in the spring, majoring in elementary education, art teacher. Simone listened patiently, nodding in agreement while inside his heart played out a blast beat.
By all that is holy, she collected comic books. And Batman! The Dark Knight himself! If he never considered marriage before (too much exposure), he was now.
“Listen . . . Michelle, I’ll tell you plainly,” he said snapping the final cable in place. “I have shunned a good chunk of the world for nearly five years now – not counting high school when no one really cares anyway – but you make me want to give it another try. Like unicorns or Pikablu, I just never knew creatures like you existed.”
“We’re a rarity alright. Mostly it comes down to knowing what you want and finding it. And I think I’ve found my soul mate in you, Pat; you’re the marshmallows in my cereal, the Tristan to my Isolde, the Gwen Stacey to my Spiderman. But I’ve been wrong before. Freaks are a dime a dozen in our world.
“So here’s the deal, Pat. Many of our ilk live on the edge of normality: Klingon speakers, hentai collectors, plate armor and egos the size of the Death Star. I get it, really. But a girl’s got to protect herself from those that forgo reality altogether, that forget to turn off the game once the credits roll. Ya know: pedophiles, stalkers . . . Do you hunt?”
“Uh . . . no.”
“Well, that’s one plus in your corner. Anyway, I found out a while ago that most creeps keep a low profile on Facebook. Just an account and just enough friends to stalk potential victims. There’s a whole study on it at Berkley. So I start there to filter. Socially adjusted guys keep at least a hundred friends or acquaintances. If you make the quota, we’ll hang out. So . . . what’s your handle? Maybe we can hang out on Saturday. Do you COD?”
Something deep inside Simone died. This was a fight he could not win. Facebook? He needed a hundred friends to purchase one date, a potential girlfriend, and possibly happily-ever-after.
By modern standards, he was a poor man with little property. The sum total of his possessions amounted to one gamer-tag on X-box Live, registered to the all-powerful – suddenly inadequate – Simone Orcbane, and a hotmail address. He wished to restart then and there, just a few minutes on the computer to display his whole life – his real life – to the world and Michelle. Oh for a new life! My computer, my Xbox, anything for a profile and two-million friends!
Face as red as shame, he scribbled his email onto an old movie stub and handed it to Michelle, savoring the touch of those light, leaf-stained fingers which he would never press again.
She will return home and realize that Simone Orcbane (or Patrick Jones, for that matter) does not exist on Facebook, on MySpace, or Twitter. And that would be the end. With any luck, she might contact Dragonette or pIzZaMaN and they could attest to his strengths. Of his leadership among guild raids, his refusal to mock or debase new members, or share epic loot among the most needy.
That he had maintained anonymity in an age when everyone owns a YouTube account is an achievement in itself, right?
Simone heard a squeal — shock most likely, he thought — and moments later found arms as white as alabaster wrapped around his waist, lips as soft as dandelion seeds pressed against his own. Then suddenly a release and warm breath fogging his glasses.
“Simone Orcbane!” his lady squealed, giggling in his arms. “Have you forgotten to check my profile again?! It’s me Dragonette! You know, from our Warcraft guild? Why haven’t you returned my emails? And I thought you lived in Quebec?”
Simone laughed and kissed his best friend, scion of Aquaman (which turned out to be surprisingly accurate). And as the evening waned, the pair sat by the pool, revealing their lives to one another and considering the truth of pIzZaMaN, prime minister of Fiji. The west wind returned, blessing the young couple and their pool in a shower of fiery hues once again.