Kristen punches the alarm clock and hopes it’ll finally shut up. It sputters out another digital chirp before giving in. She drops it into a pile of clothes to muffle it in case she only told it to snooze. Today’s the first day of the school holiday, but try telling the alarm clock that.
She steps through the piles of clothes; a horde of disintegrated Kristens all over the floor of her room. The wireless mouse is on the floor, threatening to get underfoot and trip her up. The pile furthest away from her bed are probably the least manky so she shrugs the jeans, t-shirt and grey hoodie on, then steps over the minefield of unfinished meals and into the hallway.
People are already up and about; Prospect Point is a university town and most of The Tempest Inn’s clientele are old relatives picking up, dropping off or visiting students. Old people get up early and they expect things of the family who run the B&B, then you blink, they’re gone and replaced with the next lot. Kristen puts her ‘happy host’ face on and greets a few of the guests when she reaches the ground floor.
“Excuse me,” one old man says.
Kristen tries not to glare, the voice of her mother in her head tells her to make eye contact with the customers.
“We’re out of orange juice in the dining room,” he holds up a glass jug with only a few stray shreds of orange lining the sides.
“I’ll get on it,” she says. It’s Jade’s turn to be the indentured servant, she shouldn’t have to deal with people today. She’s not a fan of people.
The door to the kitchen swings open and all inside is chaos. The new cook is busy working while Kristen’s brother’s following him with a notepad.
“You could help, you know,” the cook says.
“I know,” Ruben says. He’s not even writing in the pad, he’s sketching cartoon animals and knows how to pretend he’s busy.
“Where’s Jade?” Kristen asks.
Ruben nods at the open door to the balcony. Normally it’s kept shut so they don’t bother the guests but in the summer it was necessary to let all the kitchen’s heat out. The balcony’s a death trap, all black metal rusted and creaking. Guests probably don’t want to be dropped down the cliff and into the rocky sea below.
“Hey, shortarse,” Kristen says. Jade’s lying on a sun lounger reading her Nook. Kristen bristles when she sees it.
“What’s up?” Jade says, eyes still on her book.
“Some old guy wants more orange juice. It’s your turn.”
“Oh yeah,” she bounces up, runs into the kitchen and then comes back for the jug. “Which one is it?”
Kristen shrugs, “I don’t know, the old one,” Jade nods and runs off again. She’s young and all crazy enthusiasm about everything. She’ll learn.
The Nook is still resting on the lounger. Kristen should take it in; even in summer Prospect Point rains a lot of the time. She hesitates before picking it up, not really wanting to have to deal with the device. She does anyway.
“I know what you’re thinking and I hate you too,” are the words on the screen.
Kristen walks to the edge of the balcony, leans on the metal railing and feels it sigh under her weight. If she pushes hard enough it would all fall onto the rocks and the fishing boats below. She stares, transfixed.
The e-ink on the Nook’s screen blinks and now says, “Do it.”
“And that’s when you threw the Nook into the sea?” Vi asks.
Kristen and the therapist are sat in the dining room, dividers up so the guests don’t realise the owner’s teenage girl is so in need of some head-shrinker they’ve had to make a house call.
The phone buzzes and Kristen glares at it, turns it face-down.
Vi gives her a look. Impatient. Her question unanswered.
“Yes,” she says. “Happy now? I thought this was about the crash.”
“I was told you got on with your sister the most.”
“I do. Sid’s an idiot, my parents are my parents and Ruben’s always busy. Jade’s a nice person. It wasn’t her, it was the Nook.”
“The Nook that told you it hated you?”
Kristen nods, Vi scribbles on a notepad, the phone buzzes.
Vi’s tech is painfully out-of-date. Kristen wishes she would write on a tablet like any decent person as that way she could possibly read it from where she’s sat. Even if it meant surrounding herself with even more people.
“That your friend?” Vi asks.
“I have more than one,” two, admittedly, but she would rather not mention anything that embarrassing to the therapist.
“Tell me about her.”
“Her name’s Erin, we’re pretty tight. She mains Mercy in Overwatch, I generally go D.Va.”
“It’s a videogame and an e-sport thing. Before you say it’s all weird, they show tournaments all over the world and everything.”
“I’m sure they do. What happened after…?”
“Once I was done with the Nook I decided to go into town and see her. She works at Summerland, the arcade by the beach. It’s dismal most of the year but in the summer people actually turn up.”
The journey into town from The Tempest Inn is easy is you’re a driver. Kristen hasn’t got a license, that’s not even been a conversation with the parents yet. She’s to be kept in the inn, a servant of it until the cliff erodes enough to make it all fall into the sea.
Kristen’s free of her home for now and ready to seek out Erin. She puts her ear buds in and plays some Nobuo Uematsu. The Final Fantasy soundtracks normally spur her on, as if the world ahead is part of some massive adventure and not the dilapidated seaside town it really was. There are no random encounters here though, just drying mud and cracked tarmac.
The score from Final Fantasy X sweeps her up into it, makes her look at the city around her and the beautiful and horrible impermanence of it all. The people who come to Prospect Point only stay to attend university and then they’re gone. The only ones left are people like Kristen and her family, servants to endless hordes of people.
Before she knows it, Kristen’s at the crossroads, the first of many along the main drag, stood among a group of people waiting for the lights to change. She lets them all go and stays at the edge of the pavement, turning up the music before stepping into the road. The lights change suddenly, all showing green at the same time. The drivers are impatient, they don’t realise that the lights shouldn’t be doing this and roar into action.
“You look well, considering what happened,” Vi says.
“It was… most of them stopped when they realised every car was going from every direction. A few smashed into each other, but nothing happened to me. Drivers are maniacs but they’re not like, literal maniacs.”
Vi looks up from her notes, “And these traffic lights?”
Kristen nods. She knows. She finds the words difficult. The traffic lights did it, they conspired to kill her, they just missed.
“It’s okay,” Kristen says, “It sounds like I’m a crazy person with the Nook, the crash and the threats on my phone. That’s okay, you can think it, the other therapists did, too.”
“Didn’t your parents tell you about me?”
“You’re from out of town. I know that,” she doesn’t say that she’s annoyed her dad didn’t email Vi, otherwise she’d have known everything.
“I have no problem with the whole technology thing. I’m a friend of your father’s from the old world. Trust me, I’ve seen a lot weirder.”
That’s it. That’s her father’s trick to try and make this one work. In a heartbeat, Kristen’s mind is in the forums for their kind. Violet Beatrice Felton, aka ‘Miss_Whiskers’. Her parents offered up Kristen’s powers as they understood them, now she’s the ghost of the forums, the unseen moderator who makes sure no unauthorised humans get in by accident. She looks at the last posts of Miss_Whiskers and it’s from a couple of years ago about whether or not it was appropriate to show the youths of the forum the ‘Alien’ films. A quick skim for the last post about her revealed a conversation from last week, the third page of a topic labelled, “Crash Day”:
CoffeeBuzz – So why aren’t you coming to the island?
SkottieM – I’m busy. One of the kids has an appointment. You know Guru15 his family won’t be coming along, right?
CoffeeBuzz – I figured. How about Miss_Whiskers?
SkottieM – I don’t know, try asking her dozen cats.
Huh, Kristen thinks. Vi’s busy talking about people from the old world. A man whose trauma manifested as phantoms, a one-eyed woman who was still living the war. They came from a bad place but relocated to Earth after Ruben was born, but before Kris.
“Why do you have a dozen cats?” Kris asks. It shuts Vi up. “My dad was on the forums and said you have a dozen cats.”
“He said that? I’ve never had a dozen, I only have six at the moment,” she thinks, “yeah, six. They’re all really old rescue cats who needed homes. No one else would take them in so I did. I look after them for a few years until they…”
“Die?” Kristen says. Vi’s unwillingness to say it speaks volumes about why she’s here.
“A neighbour’s looking after them at the moment. As much as I love my cats, I’m here to speak to you. Why do you think the technology’s out to get you?”
“Don’t most people think that technology’s going to screw them over?” there’s no response, “I don’t know, maybe because I can talk to machines and they talk back. Look, enough people have issues, it’s stupid.”
“If it’s affecting your life it’s not stupid.”
“I don’t want to affect anyone,” Kristen looks at the light fittings, sections of the wall not yet repainted. “The lights here flicker from time to time, I don’t know if you noticed, but that’s me. Dad tried connecting everything to some big networked system he could control remotely but of course I’m the problem with that. We have to save up to get it undone now and it’ll be months before it’s all fixed back to how it was. I’d go and live in the woods if there was television and wifi, but I don’t know anything about survival skills. I should have studied that, but I went for media studies with Erin instead of anything physical.”
“And if you went to the woods, what would you do about her?”
“Erin? Drag her along, I guess. Again, there’s the wifi issue but she’d probably only go if she could still game and stream stuff. Once we’re all set up to do that, we’re back in the realm of me being technology’s bitch. I don’t know if Erin would follow me out there, anyway. She might, she’s a good friend like that. Sid… my brother, he often says we should get married and raise cats together as no one else would have us.”
“I could put you in touch with my cat guy.”
“You have a cat guy?”
“I’ve said too much,” Vi says with a sparkle in her eye as if she’s saying, “See? Therapists can joke, too.”
The phone buzzes.
“Erin really likes keeping in touch with you.”
“Yeah, she sends Skype messages mainly. If I’ve not answered she might get cranky and start sending weird pictures as a way to summon me. After the crash we still kept in touch while I was in hospital. I know you’re not supposed to make calls there but the rest of the technology said it was okay. I was just being checked out after all. We were back up and Overwatching as soon as I got home.”
Vi leafs through her notes. There are pages of notes, Kristen realises. A couple of different pen colours by the looks of it, so she’s been prepped before the meeting. She should have expected that.
“And you didn’t have any problems when you’re gaming?”
“So your whole technology hating you thing isn’t like you’re constantly in Maximum Overdrive?”
Vi sighs in a way which says, “Children…” but instead she says, “So computers aren’t always belittling you or trying to kill you?”
“Not all the time. Not around Erin, luckily. She’s human and doesn’t know about the whole A-Word thing. Our forums seem okay for the most part, too. I had to beat it into submission a couple of times and it’s still using mid-oughts framework, but…” she trails off. Maybe she’s already catching up with Vi’s thinking.
The pair look at each other and Kristen’s pretty sure she knows what’s going to be said, she doesn’t expect, “Kristen, do you know what anthropomorphism is?”
“Yeah, people who think they’re animals, like furries, right?”
Vi laughs a little, she tries to make it sound not totally patronising. “It’s when you relate to a thing like it’s a person. You imbue it with thoughts, emotions. Do you get what I mean?”
Kristen doesn’t answer. Vi carries on, “Some people name their cars, for instance. I don’t know if you saw mine in the driveway but I call her Mindy.”
“After a client who made you enough money to buy it?” Kristen saw the car from the windows on the landing, it looked fancy, like something one of the nicer guests would have.
“After a client, yes,” Vi says. She doesn’t make eye contact, it looks like a nerve has been touched. Vi’s scribbling something down, but not going any further.
As if nothing happened, Vi says, “So Mindy makes mistakes. She’s a pretty car but there’s a rattle I can’t place somewhere by the back-left seat. She sticks occasionally. I accused her of killing me on the way here as she nearly ran me into a stray cow. The thing is, Mindy’s just a car. She needs a check up and a lot of repairs, but I just chalk them up to character. I give her way too much leeway because I treat her like people.”
“And you’re saying that’s what I’m doing?”
“I really don’t know, I’ve not met any of our kind who have the same powers as each other. It makes diagnosing people really difficult, so there might be some part of it which is beyond you, but there’s one thing I know about the Nook, the traffic lights and your phone.”
“They’re all objects?”
Vi points her finger at Kristen like a gun.
“So I’m mad?” Kristen’s heard people come to that conclusion about her without mentioning her powers.
“Not mad. I think you’re a bright young girl, but one who is suffering from the incurable illness of being a teenager. For most kids it’s an emotional roller-coaster, but you’ve got the added problem where you talk to and project your thoughts into machines.”
“So I told the traffic lights to change? Why would I do that?”
“I think you’ve got some ideas, right?”
Kristen does. She lives online, whether or not the technology hates her, whether or not she even has a computer to hand. Consciously or otherwise, her brain’s found a few places online and doesn’t want to give the ideas a name in case they’re real.
It sticks with her for a few days though. Vi leaves and Kris is back to the school holiday alone. One day Erin will come back but for now she’s happy in the caravan park. There are pictures on Instagram of her by the pool, mainly on her own and happy like that. A book, a blue-tinted Game Boy Micro and a smile. There are a couple of Erin trying to fish her stupid dog out of the pool, his tongue lolling, eagerly swimming around with nowhere to go. Then there’s nothing for days. No posts, no random chatter on Skype. Kristen hides in the dark, aware she has to do her fair share of work, but she’s just stuck in bed looking at her dead alarm clock and piles of clothes. If she gets up, it’ll all be chores and fake-smiling for the guests. If she stays in this rank cocoon of misery then she’s unhappy but she’s safe. She doesn’t want to be in either state, she just doesn’t want to be right now.
Her mother rips the curtains open one morning. “Come on. We’ve tolerated this enough. Get up, you’re going on a shopping run with your father.”
Jenna looks at her in the bed with the same gaze you’d give a helpless spider in a bathtub just before it drowns and says, “Nonsense. You’ve been like this for a week. I know you’re missing school and your friend but keep yourself busy and time will pass before you know it.”
Time won’t pass fast enough and it’s not just her friend which paralyses Kristen to the bed. She looks beyond her mother to the grey sky and knows it’s not worth the fight. Instead she sits up slowly, then by the time she’s standing all of her clothes are arranged, the room is clean to an almost sterile level, like she’s never lived there. Jenna has a full laundry basket hanging from one hand, bin bags swollen at the edge of the door, full of all the rubbish Kristen had gathered throughout the summer and pushing their way into view. The phone buzzes and she knows it’s mocking her for being so untidy.
“There. I hoped you would fix this yourself, but evidently that wasn’t happening any time soon. I left you the least awful set of clothes for your trip. These will be cleaned by the time you get back. You’re welcome.”
Kristen blinks and her mother’s gone with the laundry and the bin bags. Always so busy and so quick.
The drive into town is silent. Scott prefers the supermarket closer to the sea as it means he can visit his fishing buddies and will chill out with them for a while if it’s not raining. Kristen can feel his phone’s recent texts; he told them he’d be heading down that way. Apparently he’ll be around for a quick beer and is a good enough driver to not let it impede him on the way home. This is not his first time doing this and he has not mentioned that he’s bringing his daughter in case his friends feel bad about drinking in front of her.
Kristen pushes the trolley while her father goes through the list and grabs things. Her telephone has been quiet; the last few messages to Erin didn’t get through. Either the seafront has terrible reception or her phone still hates her. Or… whatever the therapist was saying. The lights in the supermarket flicker.
“Can I get some air?” Kristen asks.
“Sure. We’re pretty much done anyway,” Scott’s voice is soft, like he’s playing at being concerned but she knows he’s pleased to be rid of her. As soon as she’s out of his view he’s texting Ted from the fishermen.
Summerland is closed even though it’s the height of summer and there are signs about essential repairs taking place. Erin works there sometimes, mainly in the winter when it’s open and doesn’t have any visitors. That’s how she prefers it.
No one’s there right now, it’s peaceful like Kristen needs it to be to clear her head. She puts her earbuds in and the phone starts up One Winged Angel, like it knows what’s next.
The barrier lifts; the systems here are all computerised, ready for Kristen to manipulate and if it’s her doing this or the machines themselves doesn’t matter anymore.
Digital chants block out the noise of the rollercoaster rumbling into action. The carts move by themselves, clearing the entrance to the ride in time for Kristen to drop onto the track. She pulls her light grey hoodie closed; hood up, eyes front. The ride takes a while to go round, but that’s okay, she’s patient. Sure, she could jump off the pier but this feels more fitting now she knows the machines are all just her. Now it’s her choice.
Something twitches in the corner of her eye. She looks and sees a stuffed bin bag moving by itself, rolling out from a stack of them and hopping a few feet before it stops. The cart hangs for a moment at the top of the loop, dangling directly above her, waiting for the go ahead. Kristen keeps watching the bag and a blade of yellow jabs through it. She sees the red on the tip realises what it is… a seagull’s beak. It pokes its head out and sharply caws at her, muscling at the black plastic.
“How did you get in there?” she asks.
The seagull looks angry in that way only seagulls can. Its wings beat against the bag like as if they are shoulders in a black suit several sizes too large and the seagull’s trying to act tough.
Kristen pulls out her phone and takes a photo. The bird shrugs off the bag in seconds, hops out of it and even goes back in to fish out a half-eaten piece of what looks like chicken before flying off.
The photo is perfect on Kristen’s phone. She laughs at the cross expression on the bird’s face. She wants to send it to Erin but more than that, she wants to see her best friend crack up when she sees it. Erin’s sweet and will laugh before expressing concern that the seagull was okay. Kristen will tell her that the thing was just going in for some chicken and got stuck, making its own way out in the end. Then it’ll be funny all over again. It’ll be a week and a change before Erin’s back, so she’ll have to hang on until then. The cart is locked in place, upside down and happy where it is.
Vi sits on the plastic chair and looks over the balcony, probably imagining what it’s like to throw a Nook over the edge.
Kristen’s sat on the lounger, waiting for Vi’s reaction.
“So what did you do?”
“Went back and helped my dad out. He was into his second beer so Ted drove us back and left before mum saw.”
“And then you decided to call me?”
“No. I lasted a couple of days. I played a little Rocket League with Thomas and dusted off my Vita for some Final Fantasy X. It’s my favourite. Then I realised that it was something so small, so stupid, which kept me going just a little longer.”
“As I said last time we met, it’s not stupid if it affects you.”
“I… It’s stupid.”
“I started going out and looking for things. The cracks in a building which looked a bit like a smiley face. Sid setting fire to the lawn again. Weird little fun things. I made it a kind of resolution that I would keep looking up, looking for something to help me stay here and now.”
“Sometimes all you need is that. A little push in the right direction even if it’s a seagull fighting a bin bag,” she’s seen the photo of course. Kristen still loves it and it was integral to her story, so she had to show it off.
Kristen says, “But it’s not enough is it? What if I don’t have anything like this the next time I want to… the next time it feels like too much? I need help dealing with this. My powers and the rest.”
“The powers we’ll both have to figure out as we go, but I’m good for the rest. We’ll talk to your folks about regular sessions in person and online when I’m on the road. You reckon you can keep your powers from wrecking our sessions?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Of course you will. I’ll stick to physical notepads just in case, if you don’t mind.”
Kristen’s phone buzzes and Vi jumps; she goes to answer it and looks to Vi for approval. “It could be Erin.”
Neither of them say that it could be the phone itself, it could be there with abuse for her like the Nook. For the first time in a while, Kristen doesn’t think it will be.